Home II: Beginnings
By Nan Smith
Disclaimer: Clark Kent, Superman, and some of the settings of this story are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros. December 3rd Productions, etc., and I have no claim on them whatsoever. The Story, however, is copyrighted to me.
This story is the sequel to the vignette, "Home". If you haven't read it, you need to do so before reading this, in order to understand what is going on here. This story does not attempt to change any Lois and Clark canon. It occurs in the future 21 years after Lois Lane's death at the age of 108. It is based on the ideas of reincarnation, and Clark's slowed aging mentioned in the episodes "Soul Mates" and "Brutal Youth", so no one should get upset at the idea that Clark is pursuing a woman other than Lois Lane. Suffice to say, he isn't. However, if these ideas bother you, don't read the story.
Home II: Beginnings
By Nan Smith
Lori Lyons looked up in awe at the huge building that was the headquarters for the Daily Planet.
The big news service covered the Earth plus the Lunar and Martian colonies. She wondered marginally if they would have a correspondent on the Centaurus colony if the colony ship worked out. Probably. The unmanned probes had reported an earthlike planet with livable conditions. The big ship would take five years to reach its destination; then the colonists would be on their own for awhile.
She pulled her thoughts from the ship. They'd make it. They had to. Brad was the best pilot in the whole colonial team. He'd been so proud when he had been chosen. His whole family--he, his wife and two children--was among the colonists. It was a tremendous opportunity, he'd told all of them, but Lori couldn't help worrying. He was her big brother. The ship just had to make it.
Meanwhile she was delaying. She glanced at the new chronometer on her wrist; the little wrist talker was a gift from Brad after her older one had been broken in the mugging a couple of months ago. She still had ten minutes, but it was never a good idea to arrive at the last second for an appointment.
The call had been something of a surprise.
Lori was the editor of the New Troy State University Clarion, the school's newspaper, and in spite of everything that had happened over the last two months, still in the black books of the school administration. Two months ago, Lori's story of her assault on the university grounds, and her rescue by Superman, Metropolis's newest super-hero, had given the university a black eye. Her story had highlighted the way the school was scrimping on security measures for the protection of the students. The university had issued her an ultimatum: withdraw the story or else.
And then, Clark Kent had stepped in.
He'd interviewed her, he'd interviewed Superman, and he'd attempted to interview university officials, who had declined comment, a fact that he'd included in his article. He dug up police reports and interviewed other young women who had been victims. Then he launched an expose of the administration's failure to protect its students.
The school administration backed down under the glare of unwelcome publicity, and Lori was left eternally grateful to the Daily Planet's crusading investigative journalist. Not only had he saved her reputation, but the budget for the university's annual re-landscaping and renovation had been cut back to allow part of the funds to be allocated for the improvement of campus security. All, in fact, ended well.
She'd met Clark Kent several times over the last couple of months. He was a charming and, in Lori's opinion, extremely good-looking man in his late twenties, perhaps as much as thirty. Up until recently he'd been an independent journalist who traveled the globe. He had a formidable reputation among the journalistic community, but now, he'd told her, he'd decided that he wanted to put down roots, and the Daily Planet was all too ready to hire him. Lori could only be thankful that it happened when it did.
And then she'd gotten the call inviting her to the Planet to interview for an internship.
She was due to graduate in June and had worked at other papers over previous summers. She'd applied at the Daily Planet, of course, as well as several other papers, but she never really expected them to call her. Apparently Clark Kent had put in a word for her with his editor, and convinced him to give her a chance.
Lori gulped as she waited for the elevator. She'd done interviews like this before, but this was the Daily Planet. She wiped her damp palms against her thighs and took a deep breath as the elevator doors slid open with a soft sigh of air. She stepped forward into the carpeted interior.
"Newsroom," she said.
"Hold the elevator!" a voice called.
"Wait," she told the elevator's computer.
A second later a tall, young man, his dark hair ruffled, ducked through the doors. He glanced down at her with a wide smile. "Thanks...oh, hi, Ms. Lyons."
"Hello, Mr. Kent," Lori said. She gave him a timid smile.
"Here for your interview?" he asked.
She nodded. "I'm kind of nervous."
"You'll do fine,' he assured her. "Our editor, Mr. Olsen, was pretty impressed when I told him about you." He grinned. "Besides, he was really pleased you gave him the chance to nail that set of stuffed shirts at the university."
"Yep." Clark Kent nodded vigorously. "He knew there was a problem with the security situation, but no one would speak up before. Between you and Superman, the situation's improving and the Board of Trustees is asking some embarrassing questions."
"I guess it's just as well that I graduate in June," Lori said. "I'm not very popular with them right now."
"June, huh?" He looked thoughtful. "You must carry a pretty heavy load at college to graduate so early."
"A little, but I got in a year early, too," she explained. "That helps."
"Oho! A brain!" Clark didn't act as if that was a bad thing like so many others did. "Sounds like you'll fit in well at the Planet. Here we are."
The doors swished open on the words. Clark let her exit first. "Come on. I'll take you to Mr. Olsen's office."
Lori gulped and nodded.
John Olsen was a dark-haired, slender man, probably in his early to mid forties, Lori guessed. He had a certain air of authority, even relaxed as he was, leaning casually back in his chair when they entered the editor's office.
"Um, Mr. Olsen, this is..."
"Lori Lyons." The man sat up. "So you're the young lady who caused all the fuss over at State." He chuckled. "Congratulations, Ms. Lyons. You managed something I've been trying to do for years."
Lori felt herself turning red. "Well, it helped to have been one of the victims...and to have Superman and Mr. Kent to back me up."
Olsen nodded. "So, I have your resume here. I've been reading it. Not bad. You were the editor of your high school paper, and now editor of the NTSU Clarion as well. You graduate this June, correct?"
"You're prepared to start at the bottom and work your way up?"
"Of course, sir."
"Why do you want to work here?"
Lori felt her eyes widen. "Why? Isn't it obvious? There's no other news agency on Earth like the Daily Planet!"
Olsen grinned at the response. "I guess I can't argue with that. All right, Ms. Lyons, we'll give you a try. You're on probationary status. We'll expect you here every Saturday from eight to noon until June. You'll start full time the day after graduation. If things work out--we'll see what develops. Agreed?"
Lori consciously closed her mouth and nodded. "Yes, sir!"
"Good. Clark, why don't you show her around?"
"Yes, sir." Clark opened the door for Lori. "Come on, Ms. Lyons. Let me give you the grand tour."
"Who's the little girl, Clark?" The tall, platinum blond regarded Lori down the bridge of her nose. Lori bristled.
"This is Lori Lyons, Andrea," Clark replied levelly. "The Planet's new intern. Lori, this is Andrea Waltham, the Planet's gossip columnist."
"Oh." Andrea raised a supercilious eyebrow, then turned toward Clark, obviously dismissing Lori as unimportant. She placed her hands on Clark's shoulders and snuggled close to him. Lori observed the woman's fringe benefits pressed against Clark's chest with a twinge of irritation. It was one thing if Clark had welcomed the attention, but from the expression on his face, it was the last thing he wanted.
Clark removed her hands with a firm gesture. "I'm sorry, Andrea, I'm showing Ms. Lyons around the Planet right now. Excuse me." He moved sideways, leaving the woman standing in the middle of the newsroom with a flush of humiliation and annoyance on her face.
"Now," Clark said, as if the previous incident hadn't happened, "this is the sports desk."
Lori paid close attention as Clark steered her around the Pit, apparently taking in everything. When they reached the end, Clark escorted her to the elevator. "Do you think you'll remember everything?"
"If I don't, I'll ask," Lori said.
Clark grinned. "Good idea."
"I noticed the photos," Lori said. She pointed to the clustered photos all along the hallway, extending in both directions. "Is that you?"
Clark glanced at the photo of himself, standing with Lois as they accepted their first mutual Kerth award. "That was taken in 1998, the team of Lane and Kent," he said. "They were one of the legendary reporting teams in the history of the Daily Planet. There's Norcross and Judd on the other side. All these photos are of famous journalists from the Planet's history."
Lori nodded, returning to the photo of Lane and Kent. "If he wasn't wearing glasses, he'd look a lot like you."
"I suppose that's reasonable," Clark said. "A lot of my family have worked for the Daily Planet. I guess reporting runs in the blood."
"I guess so." Lori moved to examine another photo. "Clark Kent II?"
"The grandson of the first Clark Kent," Clark explained, wishing she would drop the subject. Lori was too observant for his own good. It was just as well that he hadn't planned on keeping the truth a secret from her for long. "He was an investigative reporter, and later an editor here, right after James Olsen."
"'Olsen?" Lori asked. "Like Mr. Olsen?"
"His great grandfather."
"That's interesting," Lori said. "It looks like the Planet is almost a family business."
Clark smiled. "Let's say the Olsens and the Kents have a lot of ties to the Daily Planet."
"So, what do you think of her?" Clark asked some time later, after Lori had departed for the university.
John Olsen quirked an eyebrow at him. "So she's Great-grandma, huh? You're sure of that, Gramps?"
Clark made a face. "I wish you wouldn't call me that. Officially, I'm your second cousin, once removed. But you remember what H.G. Wells told me."
"It still seems kind of--well, far-fetched."
"It would--if I hadn't seen the proof. I knew when I met her. Just like you knew when you met Marilyn."
"Yeah." His editor/great grandson nodded reluctantly. "I believe you. 'Superman doesn't lie'." He smiled wryly. "It's funny how that particular part of Kryptonian heritage carried over when the other parts didn't."
Clark sighed. "I'm sorry, John."
The editor shook his head. "I'm not. Dad and I were the only non-super ones in the family. Mom had to balance two careers, and eventually so did Carrie and Aaron. I combined my career with the family business...you know?"
"Making a difference doesn't mean I had to have super powers. You've told me about my great grandfather Olsen often enough. He made a difference."
"A big one," Clark said, soberly. "Jimmy was someone pretty special." He glanced up at the row of photos of previous editors of the Daily Planet: Perry White, James Olsen, C.J. Kent II... "I miss him, you know?"
"Yeah, he was a great old guy. Sharp as he could be to the last."
Clark smiled. "When I met him he wasn't out of his teens. He was a gofer here in the Planet when we were just a newspaper. He worked his way up to editor...and somewhere along the line he figured out the truth about me and kept it to himself for years. I didn't find out until one day when he stepped in to give me a very credible alibi in front of a really nosy tabloid snoop who'd been sniffing after me for weeks..." Clark shook his head. "He'd always been a good friend, but it wasn't until then that I knew how good."
The two men were silent for a moment, contemplating the picture, then Clark looked away. "So, what's your opinion of Ms. Lyons?" he asked. "I don't think she'd like to think she's just being hired because of me."
"She wasn't," John said. "Your request got her the interview, nothing more. I don't do favoritism here. Her resume and what I saw of her got her the spot. She'll have to hold her own from now on."
"Good," Clark said. "I think that's all she'd expect."
"I wish I understood all this, though. She looks a lot like the early pictures of Lois Lane, but is she Lois Lane?"
"Of course not," Clark said, quietly. "She's Lori Lyons. She was Lois, Lulu, Loisette, and who knows how many other women throughout the past. Each one was the same, but different, just as I was. I was the 'Fox', the 'Lone Rider'..." He grimaced slightly. "There were both similarities and differences. The thing that counts is that she's what H. G. Wells called my 'soul mate'. That's the part that's the same."
"I'm not even going to try to make sense out of that," John said. "I'll take your word for it."
"Good, because I'm not sure I make sense of it either." Clark gave a rueful grin. "What I know in my heart isn't something I can explain, but I know that I've found her again. Now all I have to do is figure out how to explain it to her, and how not to make the mistakes I made the first time around."
"She's seen you up close as Superman. Do you think she'll make the connection?"
Clark shrugged. "Well, I don't have the glasses anymore, but I've found that behavior is a much better disguise than glasses anyway. That was what gave me away to Lois--a gesture that both Clark and Superman made. I don't intend to wait until she guesses this time. Something I finally realized was that it didn't matter which identity she fell in love with, because both sides were just me. Lois wasn't shallow. In the long run it wouldn't have made any difference, and I don't think it will with Lori."
Graduation day came at last. Lori couldn't believe it. As she crossed the stage to receive her diploma, she could literally feel her knees shaking. In spite of everything, she had made it.
Her mother and father and her older sister sat in the third row of seats, next to Brad and his family, and three rows behind them sat Clark Kent.
She'd been surprised when he'd asked her last Saturday at work if she minded his attending her graduation. She was flattered, to say the least. Clark was so nice, and his looks...well, she could certainly understand why every woman in the office, even the very much married ones, had at least a mild crush on him. Andrea Waltham was openly on a crusade to bring the tantalizingly hard-to-get Mr. Kent into her bed, but from appearances had not yet succeeded. Lori admitted, very privately, and only to herself, that she was attracted to him, too, but she had absolutely no intentions of becoming involved with anyone in the near future. She had a career to build first. She certainly had no aversion to the male of the species, but relationships of that sort interfered with a woman's career advancement. She could hear her mother's words as clearly as if she were speaking. Mariann Lyons had given up a promising career as a business consultant to marry and have children. She'd told Lori that a thousand times. Of course, many women continued their careers after marriage, Lori knew, but somehow it hadn't worked out for her mother. Lori had no intentions of taking the risk.
She received her diploma and shook hands with the string of university bigwigs waiting in line. She had no illusions about this part of the ceremony. They were as glad to get rid of her as she was to graduate and get out of here. They hadn't heard the last of her, though. This was one project she intended to watch, and if they started to backslide on security measures again she had every intention of calling them on it. She wouldn't be an intern forever.
The rest of the ceremony passed in a blur. Lori found herself repeatedly wiping sweat from her brow. The sun beat down on the assembled crowd mercilessly, and she was very glad she had remembered the sunscreen today or she would have burned to a crisp. As it was, she could feel her makeup running.
At last, it was over. With the others, she flung her cap into the air. She was through!
No, she reminded herself a moment later, she was just beginning. Her career stretched out ahead of her, full of possibilities.
A moment later she was surrounded by her family. Her niece and nephew, ages six and nine, were frankly bored, but her mother and father were gratifyingly proud of her. Marcy, who had been a successful model for the last five years, smiled at her with just a touch of patronization.
"So, Lori, now that you've got your degree, do you have a job?"
Lori was used to it. She'd always been highly competitive with her older sister, although their interests lay in radically different directions.
"As a matter of fact, I do," she said. She hadn't told Marcy about her job at the Daily Planet. The two of them didn't correspond that much, and since Marcy lived and worked in New York at a high fashion modeling agency, they hadn't seen each other in over a year. Besides, she had wanted to spring it on them all. Marcy had been so certain that a career in journalism wasn't for her "baby sister". She smiled back with just a hint of triumph. "I start full time at the Daily Planet tomorrow." She beckoned to Clark, who had been standing quietly in the background. "Everyone, this is a friend of mine from the Planet, Clark Kent. Clark, these are my mom and dad, my brother Brad, his wife Sharon, and their kids Joel and Susanne. And this is my sister, Marcy."
For an instant Marcy's jaw dropped slightly. Lori could understand that. Clark's striking good looks caught the female eye, to say the least, and Marcy was anything but indifferent to a handsome man, judging by the number of guys she had gone through in the past five years. Belatedly she wondered if she had made a mistake, introducing her admittedly beautiful sister to Clark, and pushed down a small pang of jealousy. She had no claim on him, that was certain, but she suddenly did not want Clark to turn into a pile of mush because of Marcy.
Clark had watched Lori's interaction with her sister with interest and a good deal of carefully hidden amusement. It was obvious to him that there was a good deal of sibling rivalry between the two young women. He shook hands with her family, amid the murmurs of "pleased to meet you", one eye on Lori. Marcy quickly stepped forward, her long fingered, perfectly manicured hand outstretched.
"Hello," she purred, throatily. "I'm Marcy Lyons,"
"Pleased to meet you," he said, thinking that he had never seen such a difference between two sisters. Lori was a good six inches shorter than he, even wearing heels, with brown eyes and dark brown hair that just brushed her shoulders. Marcy stood barely an inch under his height, with long, catlike eyes of an exotic green and hair that fell to her waist in waves of shimmering gold. An expression of annoyance crossed Lori's face for a bare instant, but Clark could read the signs accurately enough. He gently withdrew his hand from Marcy's and moved casually to Lori's side.
"Clark Kent?" her father was saying. "Not the reporter?"
"Actually, yes," he said. "Ms. Lyons helped me with an investigation for the Planet a few months ago, which was how we met. Your daughter's going to be a very good reporter someday."
Lori appeared gratified at the praise, but Lori's mother eyed him narrowly. "So you came to her graduation?"
"Of course," Clark said, calmly. "Ms. Lyons is a friend of mine. I'm also covering the graduation for the Planet. My editor thought it would make a good human interest angle." Only Lori saw the faint twitch of his lips, and he saw her turn slightly away to hide a smile. He continued to chat easily with Lori's family as they moved toward the street.
There was something familiar about Lori's brother, Brad. Surely, he had met the man before, but in completely different circumstances.
Then he had it. This was Commander Bradley Lyons, the captain of the big colony ship, Mayflower, set to begin its historic five-year trip to Alpha Centauri next month. As Superman, he'd met the officer six months ago at the EPRAD Space Center in Houston. Brad was a tall, impressive man, a good ten years older than Lori, who resembled her and their father more closely than either did Marcy.
"You're Commander Lyons," he said. "I thought you looked familiar."
Brad nodded and grinned cheerfully. "That's me. We haven't met before, have we?"
"I've seen your picture," Clark said, "but Lori never mentioned you."
"She wasn't supposed to. We've tried to keep our family life private."
"I completely understand that," Clark said. "Don't worry, my article won't mention you. It's supposed to focus on the graduates."
"I appreciate that," Brad said. He glanced down at his youngest sister. "So what was this investigation you helped with, Lor?"
"You didn't tell them?" Clark asked, surprised.
Lori ducked her head sheepishly. "I didn't want Mom to worry, and she would have."
"Oh, one of those," Brad said, comprehending at once.
"Yeah, I'll tell you about it later," Lori said.
"Okay," Brad said, sounding cheerful. "I guess it was more than your usual pickle, huh?"
"Kind of." Lori glanced nervously at the figures of her parents some ten feet ahead. "It turned out all right, though."
"That's a relief," Marcy said. "One of these days you're going to get into something you can't get out of, Lori. Then where will you be?"
Lori didn't answer. Clark could read the irritation in her body language at Marcy's remark. He said nothing, reflecting that risk-taking must be part of the package with Lori's persona, just as dual identities seemed to be his. It brought a wave of nostalgia.
They reached the Lyons' rented vehicle and Lori turned to him. "Clark, it was awfully sweet of you to come to my graduation. Will you be coming to dinner with us?"
He shook his head. "I've got this article to finish, and a source to meet this evening. It was nice to meet your family, though." He smiled. "Better enjoy your last day of freedom. I'll see you at the Planet tomorrow."
Lori looked a little disappointed, but nodded. "I'm looking forward to it."
As Clark walked away down the sidewalk, Mariann Lyons glanced after him, then turned to Lori.
"He's very handsome. I hope you're not thinking of any sort of romantic relationship with him."
"Mom!" Lori squashed the urge to vigorously defend herself. "Mr. Kent is just a friend, nothing more."
"So I understand. But these things happen, and anything like that could severely hamper your career. You know that."
"Mom," Lori said, patiently, "I know. Please don't start that. Clark is just being nice, and he had a job to do."
"Mariann," Robert Lyons' voice broke in, "I'm sure Lori knows what's best for her."
"I just don't want her career being short-circuited because of a man," Lori's mother continued sharply. "I had a promising career that I had to give up--"
Robert Lyons didn't flinch. He was used to it, Lori thought, but for the first time it occurred to her to wonder why her mother constantly brought up the fact that marriage to him had ended her career. And why had it? Mariann could have continued doing what she wanted. She had never seen her father so much as try to control anything she did.
"Mom," Brad said, "we've all heard this before. I think you can trust Lori to handle her own career. She's done all right so far."
Lori sincerely hoped this wouldn't degenerate into another family argument. It was the last thing she needed today. For an instant she wished Clark had stuck around.
Her mother looked annoyed, but at that moment, Susanne announced her need to visit the restroom. Lori jumped at the opportunity. "I'll take her. There's one in Ford Hall, right over there. Come on, Suzy." She grasped her niece's hand.
"I'll come, too," Brad said. "Back in a few."
"I hope Mom doesn't start that old saw again," he said, as soon as they were out of earshot of the group. "She just does it to make Dad feel guilty, you know."
"I guess," Lori said.
"She quit her career because she hated it," Brad said. "Haven't you figured that out by now, sis? Dad didn't make her stop; she wanted to. She just didn't want to admit it."
Lori absorbed that in silence for several seconds as they hurried across the emerald lawn toward Ford Hall. "I wondered," she said. "The restrooms are around this way."
They walked around to the left side of the building. "Back in a minute, Brad. Come on, Suzy."
A few moments later, Lori escorted her niece from the building. The child, no doubt tired of her enforced good behavior for the last several hours, took off across the lawn at a gallop in the direction of the car.
"Before we go back, I wanted to talk to you, Lori," Brad said.
"Yeah. I need you to help me."
"Sure." Lori agreed at once. She and Brad had always been much closer than either one had been to Marcy, in spite of the eleven year age difference.
"Can you keep something for me?"
"No problem. What is it?"
"It's a package. Here." Brad withdrew a small, wrapped box from his pocket. "Don't let anyone see it, okay?"
"I don't have time to explain. Let's just say it's insurance. If something happens to me, for some reason, take it to..." He paused. "Give it to Mr. Kent, and tell him what I said. He'll know what to do with it, and I trust his reputation. And after the ship takes off, give it to him, anyway. Okay?"
"Are you in some kind of trouble?"
Her brother shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. I'm hoping this will make sure that I'm not. Don't open it unless something happens to me, though, at least until after the launch. Can I count on you?"
Lori took the little object and stuffed it into her purse. "Of course you can. But--"
"I'll explain later, if I have the chance. Thanks, sis. You're a lifesaver." He glanced at the crowd of people waiting for them. "We're taking you to the Lexor for dinner. We better hurry. Everyone needs to get ready. Mom and Dad are catching the ten o'clock flight back to Los Angeles, and Marcy's due in New York in time for some big, midnight fashion show at Harriman's Emporium, with a bunch of foreign buyers."
It figured, Lori thought. It seemed that all the family get-togethers were rushed these days. At least they'd come to see her graduate. She just wished...oh, well. No use crying over what wasn't possible.
She hurried after Brad.
As soon as he was out of sight, Clark spun into Superman and made a fast ascent to a thousand feet. From that height, the university grounds looked like a wide, irregular patch of green, spotted with white buildings, surrounded by the steel and concrete of the sprawling city of Metropolis.
A police car floated leisurely past on its regular patrol, and the driver waved cheerfully at him. He waved back absently, hovering almost motionless above the grounds, eavesdropping shamelessly on the conversation below him.
Lori's mother was a definite stumbling block, he was thinking a few minutes later. He had the feeling that Mariann Lyons felt threatened by her ambitious daughter. Fortunately, her parents appeared to live in Los Angeles, judging from Brad Lyons' comment. That gave him a slight advantage.
From what he had seen of her and them, Lori's family seemed to be Traditionalists, but it didn't look as if they were strict followers. Her sister certainly didn't fit the mold, anyway. He grinned slightly at the thought. Lori's apparent jealousy was a good sign; at least it seemed so.
Well, his first goal was just to become a good friend, without applying pressure of any sort, no threat to her independence--not that he would do that, anyway. If he had learned anything over his very long life span, that was something that had been drilled in indelibly. After that, he would let her know about his dual identity...and they could go from there. Lori might have Lois's soul, he reminded himself again, but she wasn't Lois. She was young, barely 21 years old, unsure of herself, in spite of her obvious intelligence and the confident manner she put on, and could easily be overwhelmed. Whatever he did, he must not make her feel inferior--as if a woman with Lois's soul could ever be inferior to anyone, he thought. But she wouldn't know that. This wasn't going to be easy, but it would be worth it in the end. Of that, he was certain.
That conversation with Brad, though... Silently, he decided to try to keep an eye on the officer. He'd alert Ultra Woman, his granddaughter Rhonda, who patrolled the Houston area, to watch out for him. The last thing he needed was for something to happen to Lori's brother.
In the meantime...
Slowly, he drifted downward and dropped lightly to the sidewalk as Brad and Lori arrived at the car.
"Superman?" Brad Lyons said.
"Commander Lyons." Clark nodded in a friendly way to Lori's brother. "I just came by to congratulate Ms. Lyons on her graduation." He turned to Lori with a smile. "I suspect the Daily Planet will never be the same, Lori, but they're lucky to get you."
"Thank you, Superman." Lori sounded a little breathless.
"Is this your whole family?" he asked.
Lori nodded, and introduced her companions to the Man of Steel. Clark shook hands a second time with the members of Lori's family, taking care to pay special attention to the pop-eyed children, then turned back to Lori. "I also wanted to thank you for your assistance. If you ever need any help from me, just call."
"I--I will," Lori stammered. "How--"
He grinned suddenly. "'Help, Superman' is usually sufficient."
"'Assistance'?" Mariann Lyons said, sharply.
"Yes," Clark was careful to sound casual. "An article written by Ms. Lyons helped to uncover a problem with the University's security measures. It resulted in a considerable improvement in safety for the students. She did an excellent job. I never had a chance to thank her, so I thought I'd take the opportunity." He lifted off slowly and hovered for an instant. "Congratulations again, Lori." He drifted slowly upward until he was a good thirty feet above their heads, then made a spectacular exit.
His article about the NTSU graduation was quickly finished, then Clark set out on his evening patrol. He made a point of letting Superman be seen several times each day in unexpected places, as well as circling over the city in plain view. All five of the super-heroes that patrolled Metropolis did that. It helped keep the crime rate down.
Metropolis was not the city he had known a century ago. It covered a lot more ground, and its towers and spires reached far up into the sky. It's population had more than quadrupled since he had first set foot in it that day in front of the Daily Planet--the same day he had first met Lois Lane. Whatever Utopia they were supposed to found some day in the future, according to H.G. Wells, certainly hadn't arrived yet, and he hadn't seen HG or his old Nemesis, Tempus, for nearly eighty years. It had gotten so he had more or less dismissed them from his memory. Of course, H.G. Wells and Tempus might not realize how long Superman would actually be around. He certainly had no intention of ever telling anyone but his own family that he was the original Superman. It made for fewer complications that way, and ever since the Decade of Unrest, sixty years ago, so many records had been lost, destroyed, or simply never made in the first place that trying to track many of the births, deaths, marriages and family lines before that time had become all but impossible.
Flying well above the city, but not so far up that the brilliant colors of his uniform couldn't be seen, Clark began his patrol.
Fortunately, he didn't have to cover all that ground himself. Coasting through the cool, evening air, a flash of blue whisked past him, performed a complicated loop the loop and came to a stop beside him.
"Hi, Supes!" Aaron Olsen, John's older brother, AKA Blue Lightning, was grinning cheerfully at him. Seeing Aaron unexpectedly always made him want to do a double-take. It was like looking at his young friend Jimmy all over again, when he had been a photojournalist at the Planet. Aaron could have been John's son, rather than his older brother, he thought. The disparity between the two was astonishing. Aaron's physical appearance had obviously come down to him from Tom Olsen, Jimmy's grandson, but the telltale super-powers had come from his mother, and with them the slowed aging process.
"Hi, Aaron. How's the newest Olsen?"
"She's fine," his great grandson said. "I'll try to remember to send the pictures over later. Henry's as proud as he can be. You'd think nobody ever had a new baby before."
"Well, he and Lena never have," Clark said, reasonably. "How does it feel to reach the status of grandfather?"
"Pretty good, actually," Aaron said. "She looks like Mom, I think, and she's definitely got your eyes. Maybe she'll be lucky and not inherit Henry's powers, too."
"Who knows, she might like 'em," Clark said.
"Could be." Aaron tilted his head. "Do you hear what I hear?"
"Yeah, sounds like that demonstration at the shuttleport is getting out of hand. We better go check it out."
The riot police were already there when Superman and Blue Lightning arrived, but they welcomed the arrival of the super heroes with relief. Several of the demonstrators had chained themselves to the colonist shuttle, evidently with the intention of preventing its scheduled takeoff. Clark and Aaron moved in and quickly broke apart the chains, used their laser vision to cut the steel pipes the protesters had slipped their arms through, to prevent the police from removing them, and cleared the launch pad. The shuttle would be able to make its launch window without difficulty. One more load of the Centauri colonists was headed for the moon and the big ship.
Clark watched the police vans driving away, laden with the demonstrators, and shook his head. Aaron wasn't so restrained, however their height in the air prevented any of the vid cameras from recording his comments. Below them, Clark could see Police Lieutenant Chow standing on the tarmac, scowling as the last of the vans pulled away.
"Come on," he said.
Together, the two super heroes descended slowly to the ground. "Anything else we can do, Velma?" Aaron asked.
"Yeah." The woman glanced at him. "If one of you guys can check over the shuttle just to be sure no one left any little presents on board, I'd appreciate it."
"Gaia's Children again?" Clark asked.
"Who else?" Chow scowled more deeply.
"I'll do it," Aaron said and lifted off toward the shuttle.
"Are you expecting trouble?" Clark thought Velma Chow looked more sardonic than usual, even for her.
"Well, you know this batch, Superman," Chow said. "There hasn't been any real violence yet, but any hint of humans living anywhere but on Earth throws them into the screaming tizzies. They've just barely accepted the idea that the colonies on the moon and Mars haven't brought about the end of the world."
"They're still waiting for that," Clark said. "One of their high priests, or whatever they call themselves, was on the news last night reminding us that we're betraying Mother Earth by abandoning her to the problems we created and promising that she'll exact retribution--I think that was the phrase."
"I saw it," Chow said, sourly.
"So what were they up to this time, as if I don't know."
"Trying to prevent the colonists from reaching the Lunar base." Chow shoved her hands deeper into her pockets. "I guess the logic is that if they can't get to the ship, the ship can't take off."
Clark shook his head. "You've got your hands full all right. If there's anything any of us can do to help--all you need to do is ask."
"I know. Thanks, Superman ." Velma Chow's expression softened. "This should be over in five weeks. Once the ship launches, there'll be no point to it."
"I think you're being optimistic," Aaron said, as he dropped to the ground beside them again. "The shuttle's clear. You can give them the okay, now."
Velma Chow spoke briefly into her wrist talker, then looked back at the two super heroes. "We better get out of here. Two minutes to launch."
"Can I give you a lift?" Aaron asked, politely.
The woman nodded, and together they cleared the tarmac.
"Morning, Lori." Fred, the office copy boy, greeted her as she stepped off the elevator for her first full day of work at the Daily Planet.
It was funny how different she felt today, she thought. Last night she'd spent her first night in the one-room flat that was her new apartment. It wasn't exactly a luxury accommodation with it's tiny cooking unit, a refrigeration cubicle the size of her overnight case, two chairs, a table barely two feet by two, and a sofa hardly longer than she was to sleep on, but it was all hers. She'd moved in most of her possessions the day before, including the small vid screen that had been a present from Brad, lined her books up on the single wall shelf, and arranged her clothing in the pocket-sized closet and tiny dresser. Even the envelope-sized bathroom with it's micro-mini shower couldn't depress her, because it was hers. Give it a few weeks, she thought, and she'd make it look like home.
"Lori!" Clark had emerged from the stairwell to her left. "I need some research done. Find me everything you can on that Earth-cult--'Gaia's Children'. Have you heard of them?"
"Those flakes? Who hasn't? One of my roommates last year was trying to convert me. I told her not to waste her breath."
Clark grinned. "Well, I need everything you can find on them, yesterday if possible."
"I'll do my best," Lori said. Wow, the day was sure starting off with a bounce, she reflected as she hurried to her tiny desk in the corner. She dropped her handbag under the desk and kicked off her shoes while snapping on her computer with the other hand. Gaia's Children, of all the various nutball groups populating the planet was, in her opinion, one of the craziest, but--as her father was fond of saying--it took all kinds to make a world.
That had been clearly demonstrated last evening at the Lexor, she recalled, while telling the AI what to look for. They had just ordered dinner when four people settled down at the table next to theirs. Being naturally curious--what Brad called her 'reporter's instinct'--Lori had covertly eavesdropped on the quartet: a middle-aged woman and three men of varying ages--her three husbands. It turned out they were tourists from the Martian colonies, celebrating their latest wedding--the one that added the youngest guy to their group.
The custom was apparently quite common on Mars, she knew, where there was a distinct shortage of women; approximately one woman to six men, if she remembered correctly, but it was seen occasionally on Earth as well. It wasn't something she would care to try though, she thought. But speaking of all kinds, Marcy, herself, was another example. She'd been through seven six-month marriage contracts in the last five years. Her explanation had been simple: she got bored easily. Lori didn't think she could handle that one either. She just hoped Marcy didn't have any intentions of trying to add Clark to her collection.
Speaking of Clark... She sneaked a glance at him, leaning slightly forward to study something on his computer screen. Coming home to someone like Clark might not be so bad...some day, anyway. And when she did marry, she wanted it to be for keeps.
In spite of the fact that her Mom was awfully good at promoting guilt both in Dad and her three children, Lori had been happy growing up, even as the surprise third child that no one expected. She and Brad had been inseparable from the first. She'd seen holograms of him toting her around on his back as a six-month-old baby, a big grin on his face. Yes, she'd like to marry and have a Traditional family some day, but she swore to herself that the guilt trips were out. Having lived with them for twenty-one years, that was something no husband or child of hers would ever have to endure.
She cast a final glance at Clark as he crossed the room toward the coffee dispenser, admiring the way the material stretched across the seat of his pants as he walked, then pulled her gaze forcibly away and back to the computer screen. Quit fantasizing! she chided herself. He's probably got a girl for every day of the week, and even if he doesn't, why would he look at you?
The computer had produced four references to Gaia's Children, and the information on the web sites was mostly stuff she already knew, but she carefully made copies of the relevant paragraphs. She was obviously going to have to try some other resources if Clark needed to know anything more about them.
"Any luck?" Clark set a cup of coffee on her desk and leaned over her shoulder to look at the screen.
"Not yet," she said. "Thanks for the coffee."
"You're welcome. Three sugars, half milk, right?"
"Yeah." She sipped it cautiously. "Perfect. Mom tells me I'm going to get fat on this."
"I don't think you need to worry about it yet," he said, absently. "You know, for a cult that wants converts, they sure don't tell you much, do they?"
"No," she agreed. "At least not here. I'll see what else I can come up with, but I don't know...maybe all the really important stuff is restricted to their top echelon or something."
"Just do your best," Clark said. "If the information isn't there we'll try a different approach."
"Well, there must be some stuff about them in the morgue files. I'll try those, next. This thing says they date back to before the first moon colony. That's a long time."
The group, Gaia's Children, Lori's research found, had started out as an ordinary environmentalist movement early in the Twenty-First Century. They had believed originally that the damage man had done to the planet needed to be repaired. When the first Lunar colony was founded, they began to change. Apparently they believed that Man was abandoning his obligation to repair the planet in favor of a move to other, fairer worlds. Never mind that the Lunar colonies lived under great domes, and burrowed deeply into the barren satellite to make their habitat, Gaia's Children began to remake their philosophy into one wherein the desertion of Mother Earth by humanity would signal the end of the human race. The colonization of the Red Planet, under conditions quite similar to those on the moon, only served to further alarm them. What had originally begun as a fairly praiseworthy attempt to repair the planet was rapidly becoming a religious cult.
Lori's research brought to light facts which pretty much tallied with the little he knew of the Gaia movement, and all further information he had gathered in the succeeding week had done nothing to dispel the concern he felt over the matter. Superman cut through the cooling air of Metropolis on his evening patrol, mulling the pattern over in his mind.
In all his memory, the movement had never been associated with violence as a course of action, except for the occasional random vandalism by over-enthusiastic demonstrators. He didn't know why he was worried, but something was nagging at him, and his tenacious mind didn't want to let it go.
He banked slightly above Suicide Slum. Glancing down, he found himself wondering if this huge, festering sore on the city's side would vanish with the coming of Utopia. That was definitely one thing he wouldn't miss.
He continued on his way, covering the last leg of the patrol on his return to the older section of the city where his apartment was located. The flat now occupied by Lori Lyons, by coincidence, was only a few blocks away.
It was while he was making his final approach that his super-hearing picked up her voice.
It wasn't exactly a scream--more a cry of surprise and alarm, but he instantly reversed course and poured on the speed.
Lori was standing before the open door of her flat, staring in consternation at the scene before her as his feet hit the hall carpet at her side. "What's the matter?"
Silently, she pointed.
The flat had been burglarized. Lori's few possessions had been tossed about carelessly, her closet door gaped wide open, and the drawers of her dresser and the small table had been yanked out and lay face down on the floor. Clothing lay on the carpet along with two sofa cushions, dishes and music discs. The whole place had been turned upside down.
Quickly, he fanned his x-ray vision about the area, making certain that no one was hiding in the tiny bathroom or anywhere else within the flat. "There's no one inside, now" he said. "You can go in."
Lori stepped cautiously forward, looking around her with a strained expression. Clark put a hand lightly on her arm, and she jumped.
"Sorry," he said. "Are you all right?"
She nodded jerkily.
"Is anything missing?" he asked.
"Look around," he said.
"I don't have much," she said, her voice shaking slightly. "Whoever did this sure picked the wrong place to rob." She gave him a tremulous smile and began to step gingerly about the little room as if she were walking on eggshells. Clark relaxed slightly. If she could joke about it, however feebly, she would be all right.
Within a few moments she had completed her examination and turned to face him, looking puzzled.
"As far as I can tell, nothing's missing. They didn't even take the vid screen!"
Clark glanced around the small room. Curtainless windows on one wall let in the pinkish rays of the setting sun. He suppressed a grimace at the size of Lori's flat, but reminded himself that to her this was her place, her little home that had been invaded by strangers. By the speed at which her pulse was racing, she was a good deal more upset than she was letting on.
"You're sure nothing's missing?" he asked.
"Pretty sure. I guess I didn't have anything worth taking."
"Do you want me to call the police?"
She shook her head. "I don't see why. I guess I was lucky."
"I guess so." He glanced around and picked up the single chair that was lying on its side in the corner. "Why don't you sit down? I can have this picked up in a minute."
"Oh no, I--"
He ignored her, shifting into high speed, and within a few seconds had straightened the entire room. Lori sank slowly onto the chair as he came to a stop in front of her. "There you are. All done."
"Wow," she said. "Thanks, Superman."
"You're welcome," he said, smiling. "I checked, by the way. Whoever did this broke your lock. Be sure you fasten the chain and that sliding one tonight, and have it fixed tomorrow, all right?"
"You're sure you'll be all right?"
"I'll be fine." Any other man, without super powers, would have been fooled, he knew. "Thanks an awful lot for the help."
"No problem." He took her hand for a moment, unwilling to leave while she was still shaken, but seeing no alternative. "If you get scared, yell, okay? I can be here in a flash."
"I will." He could see her straighten her shoulders. "I'll be fine."
"Lock your door after I leave, and if anyone knocks be sure you know who's on the other side before you open it. I have a few errands to finish, but I'll fly by and check on you later. Is that all right?"
She nodded. "I'd appreciate that."
"Okay, then." He strode to the door. "Good night, Lori."
A few moments later, he was on his way westward. The hardware stores in Metropolis were all closed at this hour, but a couple of time zones to the west they wouldn't be. Within a very few minutes he was headed east once more, a small paper bag clutched in one hand, leaving a hardware store proprietor scratching his head and wondering why on Earth Superman, of all people, would need a door lock.
Some twenty minutes after he had left Lori's apartment, Clark Kent, dressed in black slacks and a white polo shirt, open at the collar, and carrying a screwdriver and the newly purchased lock, was knocking at her door.
"Who is it?" Lori's voice called.
He heard her footsteps approaching the door, then silence for an instant while she checked through the peephole. Slowly, the door opened. "What are you doing here, Clark?" Lori asked. Then, as if aware of how she sounded, she added, "I didn't know you even knew where I lived."
"Superman told me about the break-in," he explained, quickly. "I just happened to have an extra lock lying around, so I thought maybe I could help." He held up the lock and the screwdriver. "This isn't a fancy electronic one or anything so I think I can put it in for you without any problems."
Lori gulped. "Oh, Clark, you shouldn't have gone to the trouble. I'm sure I'd have been all right for one night."
"Probably," he agreed. "But Superman was a little worried, and so was I. This shouldn't take long." He regarded her more closely. "Are you okay?"
She nodded, gulped again and resolutely raised her chin. "I'll be fine. Really. It was a little scary, but Superman helped. Whoever it was didn't take anything, they just messed the place up."
"Okay, if you say so. Let me just fix this for you, though, all right? I'll feel better knowing you've got a good lock on your door."
She gave a slightly wobbly smile. "Okay. Thanks."
Lori watched Clark working on the lock with an odd feeling in her stomach, almost as if there were butterflies fluttering around in there. It sounded to her as if Superman had gone directly to Clark to let him know about her problem, and Clark had come at once to help. Not that she minded.
To keep busy, she made a pot of coffee, and began to look into the small larder for something to make for dinner.
"Are you planning on shredded wheat for dinner?" Clark was standing behind her when she turned, looking amused. "Or dill pickles on toast with ice cubes on the side sounds delicious."
She giggled. "I was going to go to the grocery store, but the break-in kind of got in the way."
"I sort of figured that." He appeared to make a decision. "Come on. I know a little family restaurant about three blocks from here. The food is really good."
She hesitated, thinking of her tight budget. He seemed to read her mind. "It's okay, I'm buying. It's the least I can do after what happened."
The temptation was too much. She gave in. She'd gotten to know Clark better over the last couple of months and knew he was a true gentleman--something rather rare in the modern day. Besides, she hadn't eaten since noon. "Okay, let me get my sweater."
"Here are your door keys." He handed them to her, waited while she retrieved her sweater, and let her precede him out the door.
The air was pleasantly cool as they left the old apartment building. The haze of city lights blurred out the stars; this wasn't new to Lori. Having grown up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, anything else would have been unusual. There had been one summer during her teen years that she had gone camping in the Grand Canyon with the family of her best friend. The week had been fun, but the solemn beauty of the stars blazing down at her from a pitch-black sky had kept her awake at night. The unfamiliar sounds of the frogs and night insects made her rest an uneasy one, and the morning serenade of the birds had awakened her early every morning. She could sleep peacefully through the blare of horns, the wail of emergency sirens and the metallic symphony of trash cans being collected at five a.m. by the big garbage bots, but the territorial song of a mockingbird could jolt her out of sleep with her heart pounding.
She glanced at Clark, who was a solid presence walking beside her in the dimness. His face was shadowed, but she could see the flash of his teeth when he smiled, and she had to admit that she felt a lot safer with him here than she had a short time ago. It had been just a little spooky, sitting alone in her flat with the door's main lock broken. She didn't know why he should be taking the time to help her out tonight, but she was glad he had come over.
"Do you know Superman well?" she asked. "I mean, he must have talked to you right after he left my place."
"Superman and I are very close," Clark said. "I don't think anyone knows him better. He was worried about you."
"So, he told you?"
Clark shrugged. "Do you mind? He knew we were coworkers, and I live only a little way from you."
"No, I don't mind," Lori said. "I was glad you came, actually."
"Good." His smile flashed again. "My ego would never have recovered if you'd told me to get lost."
She laughed, amazed at how much better she felt. Then a little pang of guilt struck her. "I hope I'm not interfering with your plans for the evening."
"Nope. Dinner with a charming and intelligent young woman is much more attractive than watching golf replays and eating junk food," he said. "Besides, I need to talk to somebody with a fresh viewpoint. Something's bothering me about this Gaia's Children business, but I can't put my finger on it. Maybe you can spot what it is."
"Well, I don't know," Lori said, quickly suppressing the little thrill of pleasure at his description of her. It was nice to know he thought of her that way but he was just being himself. Everybody liked Clark. "I guess I can try."
"There's Kerry's," he said, changing to subject momentarily. "Let's get settled, then we can discuss the whole thing with something in our stomachs."
Lori's stomach growled on cue, to her acute embarrassment, but Clark didn't appear to notice. He opened the door for her and they proceeded into the restaurant.
Kerry's was small, but once inside Lori saw that it didn't lack for customers. A pretty hostess appeared almost at once and picked up two menus. "Hello, Mr. Kent. Would you like your usual place?"
"That would be fine," he said. "Glad to see you back, Amy. How's your mother?"
"She's getting better," Amy said. "She's replacing that darned carpet, too. If she'd listened to me and gotten rid of it six months ago she wouldn't have tripped and fallen down the stairs in the first place."
Clark smiled. "Well, it could have been worse. She could have broken more than just her arm and ankle. Is she going to be all right?"
"Yes, thank goodness. Here you are." Amy set the menus down on a small table in the rear of the restaurant. "Jake will be by in a minute to take your orders."
"Wow," Lori said, as Clark pulled her chair back for her and she took her seat. "You must come here a lot if they know your name."
Clark grinned. "I guess I come by every couple of weeks or so. They're nice people. Amy's husband is one of the cooks and is studying to be a gourmet chef. Her dad owns the place, and a lot of the family works here. I said it was a family restaurant and it is, in more ways than one."
"I can see that." Lori opened the menu. "Everything looks good," she said, after a moment.
"Take your time," Clark said. He fell silent, studying the menu.
Lori finally made her decision and looked up to see him watching her with a half-smile on his face.
"What?" she asked.
"Nothing. Here comes Jake." Lori glanced up as a young man of college age approached. He placed glasses of water in front of them.
"How are you folks this evening?" he asked.
"Just fine," Clark said.
"Have you decided?"
"I think so. Lori?"
She gave her order, hoping she wasn't overdoing it, then sat back in amazement as Clark ordered the most fat and cholesterol-filled dinner on the menu. How on Earth could he eat all that junk? she wondered, glancing surreptitiously at his muscular torso, imperfectly hidden by the light shirt. The man had a body to die for. The only solution must be that he worked out heavily.
"Would you like those drinks first, or with your meals?" Jake asked.
"With my meal," Lori said. Clark nodded agreement.
"Okay. It'll be ready in about fifteen minutes," Jake said. He departed with their order, and a moment later another youngster, probably of high school age, appeared to set silverware and napkins in front of them.
Lori looked around the homey little establishment. "This is really nice."
"I know. The cooking is wonderful, too. I've tasted worse in some of the most famous places in Europe. Of course, the food isn't all that exotic--just well-prepared."
"I guess that's what counts." Lori leaned back in her chair. "So, what did you want to talk to me about?"
"Oh, yeah. Something's bothering me about this Gaia bunch, and I can't quite put my finger on what it is." He picked up his spoon and began to draw patterns absently with it on the tablecloth. "You did the research. You know how they got where they are."
"Yes," Lori said. "You saw what I found. They were pretty harmless in the beginning, supported environmentally friendly policies, good land management, protested polluters, that sort of thing, but they've changed slowly, and I can't see that it's for the better. Have you heard any of their rhetoric lately?"
"A little. I read the examples you included, though." Clark was still making patterns on the tablecloth. "Pretty inflammatory stuff, to put it politely. I think that's what's been bothering me. It seems to me that there's been a slow, steady progression..."
"That's what I thought." Lori hesitated, then plunged ahead with what had been in the back of her mind since she had researched the history of Gaia's Children. "Look, I haven't got anywhere near the experience in investigative reporting that you have, but it seems to me this crazy idea they've got about Armageddon, if we try to colonize other planets, is dangerous. A lot of them really believe that stuff, and if they think the Mayflower is going to cause the end of the world, they might decide violence is justified. It scares me. I hope you're going to tell me I'm wrong, though."
He set the spoon down. "It makes sense. After all, if the world is at stake, what's a few lives if they can save the planet?"
"That's what I was thinking." Lori met his eyes. "It's not a very pleasant thought, is it?"
"No." Clark smiled with very little humor. "Thanks for letting me bend your ear over it."
"You're welcome," she said automatically. "It's only my opinion, though. I don't really have any evidence to back it up."
"Yes, you do," Clark said, seriously. "Everything you've found points that way. I just have the feeling that something's going to happen."
"Reporter's intuition?" Lori asked.
"Huh?" For a moment he looked surprised, then nodded. "I guess. I'm worried. What if, as a last resort, they target the Mayflower itself? There's going to be two thousand-plus people on board."
The thought was horrifying. Lori stared at him, appalled. "Do you think they might?"
"What do you think?" he asked.
She swallowed. "I think you might be right," she said, very reluctantly.
"Yeah." Clark picked up his water glass, sipped and set it down. "That's what I was afraid of."
"What are you going to do?"
Clark shrugged. "All this is speculation. I'm going to have to investigate and try to determine if there's any real fact to base it on. Maybe it will turn out to be nothing, but until I know for sure, I can't ignore it."
"My brother's family is going to be on that ship. If there's anything I can do to help you...I mean, I'm just an intern, but--"
"If I need you, I'll ask," Clark said, with a little smile. "Probably the best thing you can do to help me is to find out everything else you can on these people. Funding, who their leaders are, and their backgrounds...everything. Even the smallest detail could be significant."
"I'll start as soon as I can get at my computer," she promised. "If there's anything to find, I'll find it."
Clark smiled at her determination. "I'm sure you will. We've got four weeks until the launch. I guess we better make the most of it." He lifted his head. "Here comes our dinner."
Lori could smell it, and her mouth began to water. Jake arrived with a tray of food, set it on a nearby table and deftly transferred its contents to theirs. "There you go. A cup of tea, and a glass of milk, for you, right, Mr. Kent? And milk and a chocolate shake for you, Miss?" He set the drinks down neatly. "Will there be anything else?"
"Yeah," Clark said. "How about adding two orders of your dad's double chocolate fudge mousse for dessert?"
"Gotcha, Mr. Kent. Two orders of double chocolate fudge mousse." He picked up the tray. "Enjoy your dinner."
They ate in silence for several minutes. Lori hadn't eaten this well in nearly a week. Cooking had never been one of her passions, although she could prepare food well enough if she took the time. So far, though, she had been too rushed every morning and too tired after work every day to bother with more than scrambled eggs for breakfast or a quick frozen meal at night. Not to mention the fact that her supplies were getting low, and payday wasn't until next week.
Clark was watching her again, she realized, his expression unreadable. She raised her eyebrows. "What?"
"Nothing," he said. "I was just wondering where you grew up and what it was like being the youngest child in the family."
"Oh," Lori said. "Why?"
He shrugged. "Just because."
She grinned at the expression. "Oh, in that case..."
He laughed. "No, really. I just wondered."
"I grew up in LA," she said. "Out in the suburbs. Mom and Dad had only planned on two kids." She shrugged. "It turned out all right, though. Brad was eleven when I was born. He always fought with Marcy--Dad used to say it was because they were so close together in age--but he and I got along fine. One of my first memories is riding along in the seat he'd put on the back of his bicycle just for me. I always tagged along with him, and he never let other kids pick on me, so I guess I was pretty lucky. I really missed him when he went away to college after he graduated from high school." She looked down at her plate. "Pretty soon he's going to be going even farther away. I won't see him again for years."
"You're going to miss him, aren't you?" Clark said, sympathetically.
She nodded. "Yes, I am. But it's something he's always dreamed about. Ever since I was old enough to understand stuff like that, he's wanted to be part of the colonization project. That's why he went into the Space Service in the first place. Mom didn't want him to, of course. She wanted him to stay on Earth and be a doctor. I knew he'd never be happy if he didn't at least try to do what he wanted, so I urged him to go for it."
Clark smiled at her. "I think you're a pretty good sister," he said. "I'm sure Brad appreciates it."
She smiled a little. "I think he does. I just hope nothing goes wrong now, at the last minute." She shook herself abruptly. "So, where did you grow up, Clark?" she asked, changing the subject abruptly.
"On a farm in Kansas," he said. Lori saw a faint smile on his face.
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"No, I was an only child. It wasn't so bad, though. I had terrific parents."
"'Had'?" she asked, before she thought.
"Yes. They're both gone, now." He looked a little sad for a moment. "It was a long time ago."
"Oh, Clark, I'm sorry. Me and my big mouth."
"It's okay," he said. "They were great people, and most of my memories of them are good ones."
"Do you have any other family?" she asked. "You're not all by yourself, are you?"
"No. I have a lot of extended family," he said. "Some of them live here in Metropolis."
"That's good," she said, relieved. "I wondered, you know, if you did. And you've probably got girl friends, too. I mean, you know, a guy like you..." Oh, god, she thought, I'm babbling like a teenager again, and probably embarrassing him into the bargain!
He looked a little surprised. "'Like me'?" he repeated.
"Well, sure." Lori felt herself turning pink. "I mean, you're successful, and...and pretty okay-looking...and smart..."
He smiled. "Oh. No, I don't have a girlfriend...or a boyfriend, either."
"Nobody?" she asked, incredulously.
"No." His smile faded. "Not since my wife died. I've just never met the right person."
"Oh." Lori felt a little flustered. "I'm sorry. I'm too nosy for my own good. Or other people's, either. I get nervous, and I just can't seem to stop talking and saying stupid things."
"It's all right," he said. "I think it's a quality that's going to make you a very good reporter."
"You really think so?"
"Well, that and a few other characteristics."
"Oh." Lori didn't know what to say. She ate in silence for several minutes, watching him covertly. He didn't seem unhappy. Maybe she shouldn't be feeling sorry for him, but she did; a little, anyway.
"Was she pretty?" she blurted suddenly, surprising herself.
He didn't pretend to misunderstand the question. "She was the most beautiful person I've ever known," he said, simply.
"Oh," she said, again. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be asking you things like that. It probably doesn't feel very good to have me prying into your life."
"No, it's all right," he said. "I loved her very much, and we were very happy together, but she wouldn't have wanted me to quit living because she was gone. She would have been completely disgusted with me if I had." He smiled and shook his head slightly. "She told me that she expected me to go on, and to find someone else and be happy again, and she swore that if I didn't she'd come back and haunt me." He paused, and Lori thought that an arrested expression flickered across his face for an instant, but it was only an impression. "And I will, when I find the right person, if I can convince her that I'm a halfway decent bargain. That's all there is to it."
He didn't want to talk about it, Lori surmised. She was curious about the mysterious Mrs. Kent, but it would have been rude and inconsiderate...or even ruder and more inconsiderate than she had already been...to bring it up again. She took a final bite of food and realized with a shock that she had cleaned her plate. Jake was approaching, with perfect timing, bringing the chocolate mousse, and all thoughts of Clark's wife fled.
"Ohh," she breathed.
"I thought you'd like it," Clark said with a chuckle. "At least, all the chocolate wrappers in your trash can at the office led me to think so."
Lori giggled. "You figured right. This is wonderful!"
Clark looked pleased. "I'm glad you like it."
"This is interesting," Lori murmured softly to herself.
"What?" Clark, passing her desk, paused and bent over her shoulder. "Did you find something?"
"I don't know. Maybe. Look at this." She nodded at the computer's screen.
"What is it?"
"Well..." She hesitated. "I did something a little illegal. Do you mind?"
Clark looked startled. "What?"
"These are financial records for the whole Gaia organization," she explained. "Um...I kind of broke into their computer." She ducked her head and then realized Clark was grinning.
"Where did you learn how to do that?'
"Um..." Lori could feel her cheeks burning. "My best friend was really into computers, and we did a lot of this stuff while we were in high school. She was much better than I was, but I learned some of her tricks."
"I see. So, what do you have here?"
"Well, I wanted to see if the donor list that they released matched their private one."
"No. See this?" She indicated a name at the bottom of the page. "Most of their donors are private ones except this one."
"Uphardt and Branton?" Clark asked.
"Yeah. U&B Technologies. Look how much they donated, just last month."
Clark's eyebrows rose. "And this isn't on their public list of disclosures?"
"Nope. Look at this." She pulled up a different list. "See? Their assets don't match, and U&B doesn't appear at all. They aren't listed for previous months either, but I looked in the private files, and they definitely donated, so I checked U&B's publicly listed contributions, and Gaia doesn't show up there, either."
"Maybe a corporate slush fund," Clark reasoned. "But what is Gaia doing with it?"
"I'd sure like to know," Lori said. "It's too bad this evidence isn't legal. The regulators might be interested."
"Yeah," Clark said. "U&B Technologies...Where have I heard that name before?"
"I've never heard of it," Lori said.
"I have, but I don't remember where. Hey, Barry!"
Barry Marston, the business columnist, turned his head. "Yeah?"
"Have you ever heard of Uphardt and Branton Technologies?"
"Who are they?"
"They're a medium sized electronics firm that does a lot of work for the military."
"Um--" Lori spoke up timidly. "Do they have anything to do with the Mayflower--the colony ship?"
"Nope." Barry shook his head.
"Oh," Lori said.
"It's funny that you should ask that, though," Barry continued.
"Why?" Clark asked.
"Well, about ten years ago they were one of the companies bidding on the project--for the ship's electronics, you know. They were awarded the contract, but then an inspector caught them using substandard material and they lost it. It was awarded to Lockmead. U&B fought it in court for three years, but they finally lost."
"Oh," Clark said. "Thanks, Barry. I guess that's why the name sounded familiar." He turned back to Lori. "Can you make me a hard copy of those lists?"
"Sure." Lori gave her computer the instructions. "They'll be done in a minute."
"Good. I'm going to be doing a little snooping around. You keep going at this. Find me everything you can on Gaia, and on U&B Technologies."
She nodded. The copies slipped into their tray and she handed them to Clark. "There you go."
"Thanks. If John asks, tell him I'm following a lead, will you?" He was already on his way toward the elevators.
Two hours later there was no sign of Clark, but Lori had amassed more information about U&B's corporate structure, and about the Gaia organization. The cult's headquarters was, naturally, in Metropolis, and from their public records, she had acquired the names of the leadership, none of which meant anything to her. Another search, however, brought to light another name: Sandra Callahan, an accountant for the group--which was good, because the previous year Sandra had been the roommate who had tried so fervently to convert her to the Gaia movement.
Lori's eyes narrowed as she read the name. This was an avenue she hadn't explored yet. Maybe she should make a point of looking up her old college chum...
"Whose turn is it for a donut run?" John Olsen's voice rose over the sounds of the busy office.
"Lori's," Fred announced, without hesitation. Lori rather thought it was Fred's, but, as the newest employee, she was disinclined to argue. A few moments later, she was on her way down the elevator.
The donut shop was three blocks away. Lori took the slidewalk, trundling along the side of the street at a steady four miles an hour. She walked in the same direction, thereby reducing her travel time considerably.
Al, the employee behind the counter at Ralph's Donuts, was beginning to recognize her. "Hi, Lori." He looked her over admiringly. Lori ignored his obvious interest. "Your turn again, huh?"
"Actually, it was Fred's," she said, with some acerbity.
"Yeah, I thought you were here this morning. You gotta watch Fred. He did that a lot to the intern last year, too."
"He did, huh?" Lori thought that over while Al put her order together. "Thanks for the tip. I can see Fred and I are going to have an issue or two to work out."
"Good luck," Al said.
The box of donuts under one arm, Lori stepped onto the return slidewalk, her mind busy considering and rejecting ways and means of giving Fred his comeuppance. Now that Al had brought it to her attention, it did seem as if she had gone on an inordinate number of donut runs in the last week. Why that little weasel! He'd been playing her for a fool ever since she'd come to work at the Planet. And no one else had said a word!
Of course, it wasn't likely that people like Clark had noticed, she thought. They had more important things to do than keep track of which junior employee made which donut run, but now that she'd been alerted, she'd keep an eye on Fred and see what other things the lazy little slug was doing to take advantage of her.
Her thoughts were brought to an abrupt halt as a hand reached out of what seemed like nowhere to grab her arm.
Lori jerked away and spun, just as the owner of the hand lunged forward, trying to wrap his arms around her upper torso. There was a second man behind him. Lori knew she wouldn't stand a chance if they both got hold of her.
Playing tag on the LA slidewalks had been a fine art for the kids in her social circle not many years ago, although it was frowned upon seriously by the police, and Lori was sure-footed on the moving surface. As her first assailant grabbed, Lori brought her knee up as hard as she could.
The man dropped with a strangled scream and rolled off the slidewalk. Lori winced involuntarily as his face contacted the rough concrete surface of the stationary sidewalk, but she didn't have time for more. Mugger #2 had dodged his falling companion and was coming at her. Other riders of the slidewalk stared, mesmerized at the drama that was taking place before them, or jumped from the moving strip and fled.
Lori had been taking self-defense classes since January, but a hand-to-hand fight with a beefy assailant in the middle of a slidewalk didn't seem like a very good idea. She turned and jumped for the regular sidewalk. Her pursuer's hand just caught her sleeve, throwing her off-balance. The donut box flew from her hands as she plunged face first toward the concrete.
She broke her fall on her forearms and hands, skinning them badly, but she barely felt it. Fear and pain sent adrenaline slamming through her bloodstream as the mugger leaped from the slidewalk as well, landing next to her. Lori rolled sideways, swept with one foot and took his feet neatly out from under him. He fell backwards onto the moving slidewalk as Lori scrambled to her feet, grabbing for her handbag, and ran.
The adrenaline pumping through her gave her feet wings, and the distance to the Daily Planet seemed to melt into nothing within seconds. She burst through the doors of the Planet and catapulted straight into the arms of Harris, the lobby's security guard. He caught her, staggering slightly. "Ms. Lyons, are you okay?"
She was shaking all over and suddenly became aware that tears were running down her face, but she nodded mutely. Harris held her at arm's length, surveying her. "You're bleeding! What happened?"
Looking down, Lori could see a long, jagged gouge along one arm, and raw, torn flesh along the other. Her hands were scraped and scratched as well; a deep cut on one palm dripped blood freely onto her slacks. She was clutching her handbag and the box of donuts tightly--where had they come from, she wondered irrelevantly. Somehow, in her scramble to escape, she must have picked them up and she didn't even remember doing it.
Harris was frowning at her. "Come on, Ms. Lyons, let's get you up to the first aid station," he said, evidently deciding that she wasn't in any shape to talk. He led her to the elevator. "Third floor," he told it.
When the doors opened on the newsroom, Harris guided her toward the left and the Planet's small first aid office. Lori felt her knees wobbling, and apparently Harris realized it as well, for he immediately led her to a bench that sat against the wall. "Here Ms. Lyons. Sit down."
Lori obeyed, sharply aware of the scene around her but in a detached way, as if she were watching a holovision program.
"Lori?" John Olsen was suddenly seated beside her on the bench. When had he gotten there? She squinted, trying to make his face come more clearly into focus. "What happened?"
He was talking to her, Lori realized, suddenly. She put the box of donuts carefully into his hands. "I saved the donuts," she managed.
Her editor took the box and set it on the bench. "Lori...Fred, go get her a cup of water. Sweetie, take some deep breaths. You're okay, now."
Most of the conversation around her was simply a jumble of words. She was marginally aware of the crowd of her coworkers gathering around her, but their voices were only a gabble of sound in the background. Fred reappeared, and thrust a cup of water into her hands. She gasped as it spilled into her lap, but it snapped her out of her detachment. "Mr. Olsen?"
"Take it easy, Lori. Fred! Go get her some paper towels and another cup of water. Move! Lori, can you tell me what happened?"
Lori found herself stumbling through a semi-coherent explanation of her current appearance. John Olsen listened with a grim look on his features. When she finished, he nodded. "At least you got away. Good work, Lori. I don't suppose there's much good in calling the police now, but--"
"One of them had a tattoo on the back of his hand," Lori said, suddenly. "I saw it. It looked like a coiled snake."
"Okay. Look, I'm going to call them anyway. It can't hurt. Here, take this. Do you think you can hold it without spilling it?" He let her take the cup that Fred had brought, holding on carefully until he was sure she had a grip on it. "Fred, get hold of the nurse at the first aid office. Lori's going to need a little patching up."
When Clark returned to the newsroom about five o'clock, the last thing he expected to see was Lori, her hands and forearms covered in the silvery-pink shade of NuSkin, speaking with a police officer. A closer look, courtesy of his enhanced vision, made him wince.
"Clark." John's voice spoke from behind him. "May I see you in my office, please?"
"Sure." Clark followed his boss into the editor's office and closed the door. "What happened to Lori?"
John gave him a quick, complete summary of the event, leaving Clark appalled. "She showed up here in a state of shock, and I can't blame her," he finished.
"Is she all right?" Clark asked, consciously resisting the urge to tug at his hair. He'd been gone for three hours and Lori had managed to get herself into and out of another dangerous situation. He quelled a sense of deja vu.
"More or less. You saw her arms." John grinned slightly. "I guess I can't argue about her identity anymore, can I?"
Clark gave a short laugh. "I guess not."
"But I need to know. Is there anything she's involved in that could account for this, or is it just random?"
Clark frowned. "I'm not really sure."
"What do you mean, you're not sure?"
"Her flat was broken into last night. Whoever did it literally turned the place upside down, but didn't take anything. I suppose it could be a coincidence, but--"
"You know how I feel about that kind of coincidence."
"About the same as I do. It's possible the two events could be connected to this thing with Gaia's Children that I've been investigating--are you aware that her brother is Commander Bradley Lyons, the Mayflower's captain?"
John looked at him without speaking for a moment. "No, I wasn't. Why didn't you mention it?"
"Lyons asked me not to. I figured I could ask Lori to try to get me an exclusive interview with him just before the ship leaves."
"That's a thought," John said. "All right, forget that for the moment. You think there might be a problem with Gaia? They've never been violent before."
"But there's never been plans for a colony on another earth-like planet outside the Solar System before. Their rhetoric is getting pretty...well, let's say I'm worried. And Lori dug up some under-the-table payments from U&B Technologies to Gaia."
"How did she...no, don't tell me. I don't want to know." John leaned back in his chair. "It does sound as if there's a story there, though. And there may be a tie-in to what happened today. What do you suggest I do? I don't want to lose a promising young reporter on her first investigation." He grinned slightly at Clark's lifted eyebrow. "Well, It sounds to me as if she's at least as involved in this as you are."
Clark snorted. "I guess I should have expected it. I do have an idea, but do me a favor and don't tell her I suggested it, okay?"
"Done. What is it?"
"Assign her as my temporary assistant. That will give me an excuse to keep an eye on her."
John pursed his lips, then nodded. "All right, I will. Just be sure you come back with something to fill up the paper. Twenty million online subscribers are expecting something for their money besides the latest celebrity diet and exercise routine."
"We will," Clark said. "There's something happening here that scares me."
"Well, I expect you to find out what it is. As of this moment, she's your assistant. Get going."
"Gotcha, Boss." Clark grinned at the look his editor gave him and exited the office.
The police officer was just leaving as Clark emerged into the Pit. It was odd, he thought, how the name for the place had remained the same while its appearance had changed so much.
Lori was sitting at her desk, looking both tired and a little upset; Clark couldn't blame her. It had been a traumatic couple of days for her. Had the break-in the night before been because someone was looking for that little package her brother had slipped her? But, who else would know that had been done except Superman?
But if Brad Lyons was trying to protect himself from someone, they might logically reason that he would give his insurance to a relative, in which case Lori's parents and sister could easily be in danger as well. Well, let's see...his youngest daughter, Annie, lived in Burbank. She was a rising vid-star these days. He'd have to ask her to watch out for Robert and Mariann Lyons. And his grandson, Ryan Kent, had made New York his beat. He'd alert him to the possible danger. Ryan would probably enjoy meeting Marcy, Clark thought, not without a certain amount of irony. Pretty girls always caught his eye with no difficulty at all. The two of them would probably hit it off pretty well together.
He went to his phone and left two messages in quick succession. When he looked at Lori again, she was busy at her computer, a look of concentration on her face. As he watched, she gave a little satisfied nod and leaned back in her chair.
Well, time to get the ball rolling. He rose and strode over to her small desk. "Find anything more?"
She looked up at him, then winced and rubbed her shoulder. "Some. Gaia's been making some odd purchases. I don't understand all the abbreviations, though. I downloaded it and e-mailed the list to myself at home so I can study it later."
"Do me a favor and e-mail me a copy, too," Clark said. "You're my new, temporary assistant for this assignment, by the way, so consider research into this one of your top priorities."
"Oh?" Lori looked surprised. "But--"
"You made the financial connection between U&B and Gaia," Clark said. "I spent the last three hours hanging around Gaia headquarters earnestly interviewing employees about their views on the upcoming launch. By now, the word has probably percolated around that the Daily Planet is interested in their crusade."
Lori giggled. "I'll bet. I don't know if this is useful, but I found out this morning that the roommate I told you about--the one who tried to convert me to the Gaia cause--is an accountant there. Maybe I should give her a call."
"That's a good idea," Clark said. "See if she'll agree to an interview." He ran a finger gently over the NuSkin. "After that, I think you can knock off for the day. You've had a kind of rough time. I'm going to take you home, we can order out for pizza or something, and then we can plan our strategy for tomorrow, if that's all right with you. If you'd rather rest or something, I'll understand."
"I'm okay," Lori said, a little impatiently. "My arms'll recover. I just skinned them."
"So John told me," Clark said. "Good job, by the way. It sounds as if there's a couple of muggers out there who might be rethinking their choice of careers."
"I hope so," Lori said. "Let me just call Sandra, and we can go."
While Lori was unlocking the door to her little flat, Clark scanned the room beyond with his x-ray vision. It was neat and relatively bare, except for the blanket and pillow that still reposed on the sofa. Apparently, it hadn't been touched since this morning when she had left. He could hear the slight sigh of relief that escaped her lips when she opened the door. The same thoughts that he had been entertaining must have been going through her mind as well.
"Come on in," she said. "Just let me get this stuff off the sofa." She hurried to remove the bed clothing and store it in the closet.
Clark grinned. "Don't mind me," he said. "You should have seen my first apartment. When I saw it, I almost backed out--especially at the price they were asking."
"Yeah." Lori extracted a small laptop computer and closed the closet door. "It's not very big, but I figure when I've been working for awhile I'll be able to afford a better one. Can I get you something to drink?"
Clark noted the stiff way she moved her arms. "No, thanks. I said I was ordering out for pizza, if you don't object. I'd like to look at that list you managed to find and see what Gaia is getting with its money."
"Okay." Lori opened the computer and switched it on. "I'll pull it up for you."
"Any preferences on the pizza?"
"Everything, with extra cheese." She bent over the small device. "Mom keeps telling me I'm going to get fat with all the junk I eat."
Clark glanced at her trim figure. "Well, I don't see any sign of it so far." He went to the vid-phone and punched in the number of his favorite pizza shop.
"Maybe it's my metabolism," Lori said. Clark ordered while she retrieved her mail.
The list was extensive and very detailed, Clark thought, reading it over a short time later. He recognized a few things here and there, but most of it might as well have been Greek. Worse, because he spoke Greek fluently.
"Lots of electronic stuff," he observed, finally. "From several different sources, too. I think we're going to need an expert to tell us what it's for."
"Do you know anyone who can help?" Lori asked.
"Yeah. I have a few contacts at STAR Labs. They can look the list over and give us an opinion. I'd sure like to know why an Earth cult needs all this stuff."
"Me, too," Lori said. "What on Earth is a 'micro-laser frequency scanner'?"
"Your guess is as good as mine," Clark said. "STAR Labs can probably tell us, though. Maybe they'll be able to suggest what it might be used in, too. I'm more interested in that."
"I sure hope so." Lori shifted uncomfortably. "I'll be right back. I think I'll get a couple of aspirin."
He had noticed her moving with care and concluded that her scrapes and bruises still hurt. While she was getting the aspirin, the pizza arrived and he had it set out on the little table by the time she returned, along with two containers of soda.
"That smells delicious," she said as she sank onto the sofa again. "Where did it come from?"
"Petroni's Pizza," he said, handing her a large slice, drippy with cheese. "It's a little place over on the south side."
Lori took a bite. Her eyes widened. "This is fantastic!" she mumbled around the mouthful.
She swallowed a couple of times. "How come you seem to know these great places to eat?" she wanted to know. "I never seem to be able to find anything like them."
"I like to try little out-of-the-way spots," he explained. "I've come across some really great eating places that way. I've found some real duds, too, but fortunately, my stomach can take it."
"Oh." She took another bite and closed her eyes while she chewed. "You're going to spoil me for my own cooking," she said. "I didn't realize there were restaurants that made food like this."
"I guess you eat in fast food chains a lot," Clark hazarded.
"Yeah. At least I did before I was on my own." She grinned. "You can always count on what you're getting at McFeegle's Burger Palace. It may not be great, but you don't end up with food poisoning, either. I may change my mind after this, though. A little food poisoning might not be so bad if I can find places that make food this good."
Clark laughed. "Why don't you just let me give you a list? I'd hate to think I was responsible for making you sick."
Lori laughed, too. "You're on."
They ate in silence for a time. Clark's mind went involuntarily back to something that had been bothering him earlier, and at last, when he saw her smother the third yawn in ten minutes, he broached the subject.
"Lori, I've been thinking."
"I hear that's a dangerous pastime," she said, lightly. "What about?"
"That mugging today is the second thing that's happened to you in two days," he said. "We know that there's a chance that Gaia could be trying to prevent the Mayflower launch, and you are the captain's sister. It's possible there's a connection."
She looked startled. "Do you really think there's any danger?"
"Maybe not." Clark scowled at his soda. "But I'd be happier if you'd make an extra effort to be careful, just until we find out what's really going on."
She was silent for a moment. "Okay," she said finally, rather grudgingly. "It's probably just a coincidence, but if it will make you feel better..."
Clark smiled slightly. "Don't let me force you into anything."
She laughed a little nervously. "I'll be careful; I promise."
"Thanks." He finished his pizza slice. "Look, I know you're tired and sore. I'm going to go, and let you get some rest. I have a few things to finish this evening, anyway. I'll take that list to Dr. Frazier over at STAR Labs, and make a few phone calls. I'll pick you up here tomorrow morning, if that's all right, and we'll head over to Gaia headquarters. Okay?"
"Okay." She started to close the pizza box on the last remaining slices, but he shook his head and got to his feet.
"I'll see myself out. You've been yawning for the last fifteen minutes. Lock the door after I'm gone, and if anything scares you, call me. I can have help here in a few minutes."
She nodded, smothering another yawn. "That's what Superman said last night."
"Well, listen to him. There's probably nothing to be worried about, but I'd rather be overcautious than not cautious enough." He smiled at her. "Good night, Lori."
Clark arrived at Lori's apartment just before seven the next morning. A flash of red and blue in the sky above him caught his eye, and he glanced up to see Superwoman, his daughter Lara, hovering there for an instant before she waved breezily and disappeared into the glare of the morning sun.
He shook his head, grinning slightly.
He had intended, after leaving Lori's flat the night before, to camp out on the roof of her apartment house, but at one a.m. Aaron had arrived unexpectedly and told him, in a tone that brooked no nonsense, to go home; he was taking over. Evidently, Lara had relieved him some time after that.
It continued to amaze him how his entire family appeared to have pitched in to help him this time. If he had ever had any doubts about how much they cared for his happiness, this would have ended them.
They had all been worried about him when he had lost Lois; he knew the whole family had half-expected to lose him as well--he hadn't expected to be able to survive without her. The only thing that had made the difference had been that indefinable sense that she was still there, somewhere, waiting for him. His discovery of Lori had been hailed by his descendents with joy. All of them were aware of the pitfalls that lay ahead of him, the difference in his age and hers being a big one, but if anything they could do could make it easier, he knew they would do it.
His four children fully understood his situation, perhaps more closely than they would like, he knew, because they would be facing it themselves in the not-too-distant future. Some members of the succeeding generations also would; those who had inherited the Kryptonian power to communicate telepathically with other Kryptonians appeared to have inherited the necessity to bond as well. Not all of them had the ability, just as not all had inherited his super powers. John and Aaron were two perfect examples. John had no super powers at all, but he could speak telepathically to his other telepathic Kryptonian relatives if he chose, although he rarely did so, and had bonded with his wife, Marilyn, the day he met her. His brother, Aaron, had inherited the full range of his great grandfather's super powers, but was telepathically null. Their sister, Carrie, however, had both sets of abilities. Their family physician, Rhonda Klein--Ultra-Woman, who patrolled the Houston area--had explained one time that the super powers were caused by Earth's yellow sun; the telepathic and emotional bond was something else entirely, and had no connection to the super powers. Clark had long since given up on the genetic complexities. He merely knew that they were still learning things about his Kryptonian heritage, and probably would be for a long time to come.
He trotted up the steps in front of Lori's shabby little apartment house. He could hear her heartbeat, and the sounds of her moving around in her flat as he zipped up the inner stairwell with more than human speed, and was almost instantly knocking at her door.
She opened it a few seconds later, looking surprised. "That was fast! I saw you coming up the walk a few minutes ago."
Clark shrugged. "I ran up the steps...part of my physical fitness program."
"Oh. Well, come in. I'm just finishing my makeup." She opened the door wider. "I'll be done in a minute."
"I thought we could catch breakfast at Kerry's, then go over to Gaia headquarters," Clark explained. "You did say the interview is at eight-thirty, didn't you?"
"Yeah," Lori said. "Do you have some kind of plan, or is it really just going to be an interview?"
Clark raised an eyebrow at her. "A long time ago, the best reporter I ever knew taught me to always have a plan." He reached into his pocket. "Courtesy of Dr. Frazier at STAR Labs."
Lori looked curiously at the three straight pins in the palm of his hand. "What are those?"
"Pinhead mikes," Clark said. "They'll pick up even the faintest sounds within a radius of thirty feet and transmit to a special receiver outside the building. All I need is an excuse to get inside, and a few unsupervised minutes, and we're set."
"Wow," Lori said. "So the interview is just so we can plant these?"
"Yes and no. I'm going to print the interview, too. We owe it to our readers to give both sides of the debate, you know. Anything else we might find is up to us."
"Okay. Just give me a few minutes, and we can go."
"Take your time." Clark said.
She disappeared into her tiny bathroom, and Clark glanced around. A quick peek with his x-ray vision confirmed his suspicion that Lori hadn't been grocery shopping since the night of the break-in. Even the shredded wheat and dill pickles were gone. The first few weeks of getting started must be pretty difficult for her, he surmised, and he had a strong suspicion she didn't want to ask her parents for help. No wonder the poor kid was starving. Well, the last thing he wanted to do was to hurt her pride, so he would have to think of something he could do without letting her know he'd figured out the problem.
An hour later, they were knocking on the door of Sandra Callahan's office in the three-story building that housed the headquarters of the Gaia's Children movement.
Lori had somehow envisioned something somewhat different than the modern building they had entered. A cult which focused on the Earth, in her mind at least, wasn't associated with a structure of steel and concrete, with efficient secretaries and men and women in business suits, but that was the reality. A tall, thin young man, with a disapproving expression, escorted them into her office.
Sandra, Lori recalled, had always been mature for her age, and always made Lori feel much younger than she actually was. Her former roommate would be about twenty-three, right now, and a very self-possessed twenty-three at that. She didn't seem to Lori to be the sort to be sucked in by an ideology of this sort, but Lori had learned some time ago that you couldn't judge a book by its cover, as her father had always said.
She plastered a smile on her face.
"Sandra, it's so good to see you again."
"Lori." Sandra acknowledged her greeting with a reserved smile. "Your call yesterday was certainly a surprise. I thought you made it clear last time we spoke that your interest in our movement was nonexistent."
Lori shrugged. "It is," she admitted. "But the Daily Planet is doing an in-depth article on the colony ship, and our editor didn't think it would be fair not to give the opponents their say. This is Mr. Kent, who's writing the article. Clark, this is Sandra Callahan."
Clark turned his beautiful smile on Sandra, and Lori watched her stiff manner relax somewhat. His dark good looks, and that smile were virtually guaranteed to melt the heart of the most hostile female that could be imagined, she thought with amusement. Of course, the fact that Clark resembled Superman somewhat probably didn't hurt. Both were outstandingly (and most unfairly) attractive men.
Sandra indicated that her visitors should sit, and asked, "What did you want to know about Gaia's Children, Mr. Kent?"
"Well," Clark began, "first could you describe your reasons for joining the Gaia movement?" He fixed his eyes on her with such an expression of interest on his face that Lori had to turn an involuntary laugh into a cough. After a few minutes, however, her amusement disappeared to be replaced by respect. Listening to Clark conduct an interview was like watching an artist at work; Lori thought she had never heard someone draw out his subject with such skill, getting her to open up and answer more of his real questions than she perhaps intended. When he concluded the interview as gracefully as he had begun it, Sandra's initial suspicion had vanished, and she was smiling at him in a friendly way.
"Thank you for taking the time for us this morning, Ms. Callahan," he was saying, as they rose to depart. "Do you have any more literature that I can have--"
"Oh, yes!" Sandra turned toward the door. "Wait here a minute. I'll be right back." She hurried from the office and Lori could hear the click of her sandals as she hurried down the hallway outside.
"Wow," Lori said, softly. "I thought I knew something about conducting an interview! I think I learned more watching that than I did in four years of college."
"Thanks," Clark said. "You remember the next step, don't you?"
"Good." He turned his head. "Here she comes."
Sandra entered the room a few seconds later, several pamphlets in her hand. "Here you are, Mr. Kent."
"Thank you." Clark accepted them with a smile. "I appreciate all the trouble you've gone to this morning. You've been a great help."
"It was my pleasure," Sandra said. "If you need any more information, please be sure to call me."
"I will," Clark said. He opened the door for Lori, who preceded him from the office.
As the door started to close, she caught it and turned to her former roommate. "Sandra, is there a restroom around here?"
"Sure. Down the hall toward the elevators, third door to your left."
When Lori rejoined Clark ten minutes later, he was standing in the hallway, apparently waiting patiently for her. She glanced questioningly at him, but he simply smiled.
"Ready?" he asked.
They exchanged only a few words on their way down the elevator. It wasn't until they were out on the street that Lori asked, "How did it go?"
"They're planted," Clark said, quietly. "Now all we have to do is wait. Thanks for giving me the excuse to hang around in the hall for a few minutes."
Lori couldn't help wondering how he'd managed to plant three bugs in three offices in the space of ten minutes, but if anyone could do it, Clark could. "No sweat," she said. "Where to, now?"
"Well," he said, "I guess we could drop by the office. I need to write up my notes, and I'd like you to do a deeper background on U&B Technologies for me--say, the last ten years. I'd like to see if any kind of pattern surfaces. STAR Labs is supposed to be calling me sometime today with an opinion on that list. Dr. Frazier promised he'd get to it as soon as he could today." He grinned at her. "Of course, with Dr. Frazier, you never know."
"Oh?" Lori said.
Clark nodded. "You have to know Arnie," he said. "Brilliant man, and a really nice guy, but..." He shrugged. "Like I said, you have to know him."
"I'll take your word for it," Lori said. "What if your bugs don't come up with anything?"
"Then we'll have to think of a way to get back in and move them. I tried to pick the offices of the most senior officials that I could. I figure the Mayflower is the highest priority they're likely to have right now, but, of course, time will tell."
"Probably," Lori said. "What if they find the bugs?"
"We'll deal with that if it happens. Dr. Frazier did his best to keep the possibility to a minimum. They're not metal; they're some kind of ceramic material, so they'll be harder to locate, and the signal is designed to sound like background noise unless you're listening with a special detector. Unless they're specifically looking for them, and know exactly what to look for, it isn't likely they'll spot them."
Lori sat back in her chair and stretched.
The past four hours had been busy ones for her, digging as thoroughly as she could into the known history of U&B Technologies.
She had hunted up records of contracts and deals, and the jobs in which they had been involved for the past ten years, beginning with their first major contract. Legal entanglements, of course, dotted their record--no good-sized company on the face of the Earth was without those, but she had begun to notice a trend as her research into their record neared the present date.
Clark dropped a hand on her shoulder. "How's it going?" he inquired.
She looked up at him with a smile. "All right. I haven't been able to crack into their system; I guess I'm not good enough for that yet, but I've found a lot in the public records. Some of it's--well, pretty interesting."
"Good," he said. "Are you ready for some lunch? It's past noon."
Lori's stomach grumbled a little at the suggestion, and he laughed.
"I'd say you are. Come on. As long as you're working for me, I'm buying."
Her slight hesitation vanished. "Okay."
"Good. Let's go. You can tell me about what you've found while we eat."
"Whose turn for donuts?" John Olsen's voice said.
Fred turned his head. "It's Lori's turn. I got the last ones."
"Sorry, Fred," Clark said, easily. "Lori's assisting me right now. Come on, Lori." He gestured her up the ramp ahead of him, leaving Fred to look resentfully after them and mutter under his breath.
"Is there a problem with Fred?" Clark asked quietly, as they boarded the elevator.
"Not really." Lori said, unwilling to tattle on her coworker, in spite of his irritating ways. "Nothing I can't handle, anyway."
"Oh," Clark said. "Okay, if you say so. Where would you like to eat?"
"I don't know." Lori thought unenthusiastically of the Planet's lunch facilities. "I guess the lunchroom is okay."
Clark made a face. "Do you like Mexican food?"
"Great. Mamacita's is just three blocks away. I can recommend it."
"Is that another one of your little out-of-the-way places?" she asked.
"Well, it's not out of the way, but the food is good," Clark said.
"All right," Lori said, as the door slid open, to release them into the lobby. "I just feel bad that you always seem to be buying me food."
"Hey, the company is worth it," Clark said, cheerfully. "It's no fun eating alone."
"Well...if you put it like that, I guess it's all right," she said.
"Good. Let's go."
It was a bright, sunny afternoon, Lori saw as they exited onto the street. There was a slight wind blowing, and fleecy, white clouds dotted the sky. High up, a human figure in red and blue crossed her line of vision--one of the superheroes going about his or her business, she guessed. The only two who wore the red and blue combination to her knowledge were Superman and Superwoman.
Clark glanced up, following her gaze, then steered her to the northbound slidewalk.
"So," he said, apparently out of nowhere, "I've been meaning to ask you. What's your opinion of Superman?"
"Huh?" Lori found herself at a loss. "What do you mean?"
"Do you like him?"
"Well, sure. He saved my life," she said, throwing him a curious glance. "Why?"
"I just wondered," Clark said, looking extraordinarily innocent. "He likes you a lot, you know."
"Does he?" Lori asked. "I didn't know. Did he say so?"
"More or less."
"That's nice to know," Lori said. "I'll never forget how he saved me that night I was mugged on campus. He flew with me a little way, you know. It was a wonderful experience."
"I guess flying doesn't scare you," Clark said.
"No. It was really fantastic," she admitted. "Have you ever flown with him?"
"Not exactly," Clark said. "I've flown with Superwoman, though. I agree; flying's a great experience."
"I guess you must know Superman's family," Lori said.
"Yeah, I do."
"I've wondered what they were like," she said. "I mean, they're all the original Superman's descendants, aren't they?"
"Yes," Clark said.
"I think we're lucky to have them here," Lori said. "I never thought much about them when I lived at home in LA. I saw Shooting Star once from a distance--she lives in LA, somewhere, I guess. Then, I came to Metropolis, and there were four of them at first, and a couple of years later Superman appeared. I guess Metropolis needs five since it's so big."
"I suppose," Clark said.
"Anyway, I like Superman, if he wants to know. He's very nice, and...well, I know a guy doesn't think about it much, but he's very good looking." She glanced at him, and said bravely, "You sort of look like him, you know."
"You think so?" Clark said.
"Yeah. I think your hair is a little longer, and he might be a little taller, but you look a lot alike."
"Does that mean you think I'm good looking, too?" he asked, teasingly.
Lori felt her cheeks turning pink, but she replied determinedly, "Yes, I do."
He chuckled. "Thanks. I think you're pretty nice looking, yourself. Here we are."
They stepped from the slidewalk. Lori saw the restaurant in question across the street.
As they stepped to the curb, a battered ground car pulled up beside them and the rear door opened. Lori found herself staring, stunned, into the muzzle of a weapon. A deep, male voice said, "Get in."
The ancient ground car, it's windows darkened to the fullest, moved sedately through downtown Metropolis. The two men in the front seat were silent. One sat sideways, keeping what appeared to be a commercial stunner centered directly on Lori.
Clark sat still, careful not to make any kind of move that could possibly be interpreted as threatening. Lori was huddled against him in the seat, and he gently put an arm around her shoulders in a comforting gesture.
"Aw, ain't that sweet." The individual holding the stunner grinned unpleasantly at him. "Big he-man gonna protect his little girlfriend." He moved the muzzle a little closer to Lori. "Not so tough now, are you, sweetheart?"
"I suppose it takes a gun to make a guy like you feel like a real man," Lori said, with a flash of spirit. "You couldn't even handle one unarmed woman on a slidewalk."
The grin vanished, to be replaced by a scowl. "Listen, you little--"
"Shut up, Frank." The driver spoke tersely.
"I said shut up."
Frank fell silent, still scowling.
Lori glanced up at Clark. "Sorry," she said.
He answered her with a slight tightening of his arm. There was something about the stunner that Frank was aiming at Lori that didn't look quite right. He brought his x-ray vision to bear on it, and silently caught his breath at what it revealed.
The thing Frank was holding had once been a stunner, all right, but it wasn't anymore. Someone had removed the power limiting chip, and that had to have been the work of a real expert, he knew. Normally, the removal or destruction of a stunner's limitator would render the weapon permanently inoperative by frying the internal circuitry with the energy of the power core, which destroyed itself in the process. Somehow, that hadn't happened here. The thing now pointing at Lori was in effect a very crude sonic disrupter, without any of the lower power settings present on police or military weapons. But crude or not, it could do the job for which it was intended. It had been altered for one purpose and one purpose only: to kill. These people were playing for keeps.
He doubted the weapon could affect him seriously, but Lori was another matter entirely. He wouldn't risk her life for any reason; that went without saying, but now was a possible chance for them to discover what was behind yesterday's attack on her and the break-in at her apartment. If there appeared to be any immediate threat to her, he would get her out of here at once, secret identity notwithstanding. In the meantime, he would remain silent; it was an opportunity too good to miss.
The ground car turned down an alley and came to a stop behind a larger, more modern vehicle, sleek and elegant, gleaming black and silver in the afternoon sun. The driver killed the engine.
"Get out," Frank directed his two captives. "And don't either of you try anything or the pretty boy fries. This thing may look like a stunner, but take it from me, it ain't."
They obeyed silently. Clark kept his body partially between Lori and the weapon, which didn't seem to worry Frank. He waved the disrupter. "Get in the other car."
Slowly, they climbed into the back and the door was slammed behind them. Clark glanced at the plastic privacy screen between the front and rear seats, but said nothing. The windows of this vehicle were darkened as well, affording those outside no glimpse of what might be occurring within.
"Clark, what's going to happen to us?" Lori's whisper was soft and very frightened, although she had shown little fear in the presence of their captors. "Why are they doing this?"
"I think we're going to find out," he replied, as softly. "Don't do anything to upset that idiot with the gun. I don't think he's bright enough to control his temper very well." Again, he slipped an arm around her. "Trust me. I won't let them hurt you."
She swallowed. "I'm scared."
"I know," he replied. "Just hang in there, okay?"
The car's engine started suddenly and the big vehicle eased forward with a smooth and ponderous, grace. Suddenly, Clark's nostrils caught a scent, and it took only a couple of seconds for him to identify it. Gas.
Lori gasped and clutched at her throat, before slumping limply against him, and Clark let himself slip sideways in the seat. Well, he thought, at least she wouldn't be frightened, while he did whatever he had to do in the immediate future.
The trip went on for another thirty minutes. Clark kept his eyelids open a crack to keep an eye on things, and kept his ears tuned to Lori's heartbeat and breathing. They were slow, but steady. The two men in the front seat conversed in monosyllables; not much to learn there, but he continued to listen, anyway.
They were out in the suburbs, now. Clark remained still as the vehicle stopped before a gated community. The iron gates opened, and they moved through.
At last, the car pulled into a garage, the engine died, and the garage door closed behind them. An overhead light came on, and the rear doors of the car opened. Clark felt Lori hauled out over him, then a pair of muscular hands caught him by the shoulders and dragged him from the car.
"Damn, but this guy's heavy!" Frank's voice grunted. "Why not just kill him here? I don't want to haul him up those steps."
"Shut up, Frank." It seemed to be the driver's favorite phrase. "No killing anybody here."
"No buts. You heard the orders."
After that, Clark made himself as limp and heavy as he reasonably could. If he was lucky, maybe Frank would throw out his back or something. The knowledge that he was one of the two men who had tried to mug Lori on the slidewalk put him beyond pardon, as far as Clark was concerned. He wouldn't do anything active to hurt the man, no matter what he had done, but what Frank did to himself during the commission of a crime was another matter entirely.
He was dragged unceremoniously up a short flight of wooden steps, through a door and into a kitchen. From the kitchen, they traversed the hall beyond, and from there another and longer flight of stairs to the second floor, with Frank cursing steadily all the way. None of it was new or even imaginative. Clark concentrated on being as unhelpful as possible.
Eventually, Frank dragged him onto the rug of the upper hallway and dropped his shoulders to the floor with a solid thud and a final swear word, then attempted to relieve his feelings by delivering a sharp kick to Clark's ribs. He spent the next several seconds clutching his bruised foot and swearing more colorfully than ever.
"What the devil's holding you up?" The driver emerged from an open door at the end of the hall. "Get him in here and stop fooling around! We haven't got all day!"
"I said move it!"
When Frank dropped him to the rug inside the room, Clark lay still until the door closed behind him, then rose swiftly to his feet and hurried to Lori where she had been dumped rather unceremoniously on the room's single bed. Gently, he picked her up and arranged her more comfortably, all the while tuning his hearing to the voices of the two men elsewhere in the house. After a minute, the kitchen door to the garage slammed, and a few moments later he heard the engine of the big car come to life.
The heartbeat of one man remained below, however. He went to the window, to see the big, black car vanishing up the street.
Slowly, he turned and took in his surroundings.
The bedroom was small and feminine. The thick, plush rug was pink in color, and the walls were painted to match. White, frilly curtains framed the window, and a delicate, carved dresser stood against one wall. A ridiculously pink, lace-covered dressing table and mirror sat next to the window, with a padded stool in front of it. The room obviously belonged to a woman, Clark thought. He decided he would pass no judgment on the unknown female's taste in decor.
Somewhere below him he heard the soft beeping as the remaining man punched a number into the vid phone. Clark trained his x-ray vision on the floor, trying to see.
Too late. The phone was beeping softly as it waited for an answer.
And, at last...
"Yes? I trust you have news for me?"
The screen had not lit up; the recipient must have his screen block on, Clark surmised, but his voice was distinctive. It was sharp, heavy with authority and carried a strong, nasal twang.
"We got the girl, sir." It was Ray speaking. "We had to pick up that guy, Kent, that she's been going all over with, too, though."
"You idiots! You realize now that you'll have to dispose of two bodies instead of one? That was extremely untidy!"
"Yes, sir, but he was going with her everywhere, and every time we got near her place last night there was some super hero or other just hanging around."
"Did any of them see you?"
"No, sir, but we had to grab her when we had the chance, sir. Our contact warned us they were..." There was a brief pause. "Well, anyway, we have them. They're sleeping off the gas upstairs, sir. When they wake up--"
"Before that, your associate will search that apartment of hers thoroughly! The previous attempt was hurried and incomplete. If the item fails to surface, you will wring the location from the girl by any means necessary. Is that clear?"
"Don't be too worried about leaving her in the same condition in which you found her. When you're done, dispose of both of them at a distance from the house. The Hobs River or the bay would be appropriate."
"That package must be found! Lyons is getting too close, and if we have to move before the package is in our hands, it will result in grave consequences for all of us. Am I being clear?"
"Call me again when you have some results!"
"Yes, sir." There was a soft "ping" as the connection was broken.
Well, Clark thought, that was interesting. It sounded as if that package of Lori's was a hotter potato than either of them had suspected.
However, it looked as if he had reached the limit of what he could learn here. Frank and Ray obviously didn't know the identity of the man giving them orders, or he wouldn't have tried to hide his face from them, but Clark was certain of one thing. If and when he encountered the mysterious Mr. X again, he would recognize his voice. In any case, it looked as if the time had come to make their escape. This shouldn't be too difficult.
Lori moaned and began to gag.
Quickly, he hurried to her. She was moving restlessly about, and her face had acquired a pale, greenish hue. Clark glanced around the small, bedroom and discovered a pink satin-covered wastebasket beside the dainty, ruffled dressing table. Quickly, he appropriated it and moved back to Lori's side.
"Clark?" Lori hadn't opened her eyes, and the word was barely more than a whisper.
"I'm right here, Lori."
"I feel sick. I'm going to--"
Quickly, he turned her to the side and held the basket for her while she lost the little that remained in her stomach from breakfast. When the dry heaves finally stopped, she lay back, her eyes still closed.
"I'm right here. Just lie still. You'll feel better in a little while." He set the trash basket down far enough away that the smell wouldn't upset her stomach further. Her complexion worried him; it was so pale that every freckle stood out against the white background in sharp contrast.
"Where are we?"
"Locked in a bedroom, in a house."
Her hand fumbled for his, and he slipped his big one around it. "We're going to get out of here. Don't worry."
"Don't go away."
"I'm not leaving." Swiftly, he revised his plan. Lara, he called out mentally. I need help!
Instantly, his oldest daughter's voice was answering him. Where are you, Dad?
With a few, quick sentences, he explained his predicament, and Lara responded, I'll be there in a minute.
Almost instantly, a sonic boom rattled the windows, and a moment later the bedroom door opened. The diminutive form of Superwoman stood there, brilliant in her red and blue uniform, holding a crestfallen Ray by the back of his collar.
"Are you and Ms. Lyons all right, Clark?" she inquired.
"I think so." He glanced down at Lori, noting that her eyes were open and she was looking at Lara, but her face was still greenish-white.
A quick burst of super speed, and Ray was face down on the floor, tied hand and foot with strips of torn towel. Superwoman strode to Lori and smiled gently. "Lie still, Ms. Lyons. You'll feel better shortly. The other of your two kidnappers is on his way to break into your apartment. I'm going to be there, waiting for him when he gets your door open. I'll notify the police on my way past. I'm sure they'll want that telephone number this gentleman used to call his employer. You wait here with Ms. Lyons, Clark."
"I will. Thank you, Superwoman."
"My pleasure." With that, the small, businesslike woman was gone in a gust of air. Ray, face down on the rug, closed his eyes and groaned dismally.
"As far as we can determine, the house belongs to a family that's on vacation," Lieutenant Chow said. "We'll check them out more thoroughly, of course, but right now the only connection seems to be that this pair of rocket scientists brought you here."
"I heard Ray tell Frank that they had orders not to kill anyone here," Clark said. "There must be some reason for that."
"We're not dropping it." Chow regarded Clark in a friendlier manner than she did most reporters. "And we're tracing the phone call. It's a Houston number; I can tell you that from the prefix. Do you have any idea who in Houston might be after your scalp?"
Clark shook his head. "I'm afraid not." He turned his head as the paramedic entered the room. "How's Ms. Lyons?"
The woman smiled. "Still a little queasy, but feeling much better, Mr. Kent. I can't convince her to let us take her to the hospital to be checked over, though."
Clark laughed, softly. That sounded familiar. "Can we hitch a ride back to the city with you, Lieutenant?" he asked.
Chow smiled a trifle grimly. "Sure. Ms. Lyons can ride in the front seat, next to the window. That should help. I don't usually allow civilians to ride in front, but, for the sake of my upholstery, I'll make an exception." She glanced sideways at Clark. "What I'd like to know is why you're in as good shape as you are."
Clark shrugged. "Just lucky, I guess." He glanced at his jacket. "My suit may never be the same, though."
Chow snorted. Clark rose to his feet. "Excuse me, Lieutenant. I want to see how she is."
Lori's complexion had improved considerably, Clark saw, when he entered the small bedroom. She turned her head when he came through the door and smiled.
"Hi." She started to push herself up and he hurried to help her.
"You look like you feel better," he said.
"I do. Sorry to be such a baby."
"You weren't," Clark said, a little surprised. "I thought you showed a lot of courage."
"Maybe, but my stomach didn't," Lori said. "You weren't sick at all."
Clark hesitated. "I'm not usually sensitive to that sort of thing," he explained. "Take it from me, it wasn't anything you could help. I just didn't react to the gas like you did."
"I guess. I'm glad Superwoman showed up when she did, though."
"So am I," Clark said.
"She's just as impressive as Superman," Lori said. "It's funny, she's littler than I am."
"I guess the old saying about good things coming in small packages is truer than people realize," Clark said. "I agree; she's a terrific lady. She got Frank when he broke into your apartment, too. Lieutenant Chow got the call a little while ago. It looks like I'm going to have to replace your door lock again, though."
Dismayed, Clark saw tears beginning to well up in her eyes. "Hey, don't cry." He pulled the handkerchief from his breast pocket and put it in her hands. "It's okay. I don't mind fixing your lock, really."
She wiped her eyes, sniffed determinedly, and made a visible effort to regain her composure. "I'm not crying. I never cry."
"'Course not." Clark smiled at her. "You've just had a really bad day."
She sniffed again, and gave a shaky laugh. "Has anyone ever told you you're really good at understatements?"
"A few people."
"Well, they were right. But the morning started out okay."
"Yeah, it did." He brushed her cheek with a forefinger. "Do you feel up to riding in a car yet? Lieutenant Chow is going to give us a lift back to town."
"I think so."
"Good. I'll give you a hand down the stairs. If you need to sit down, just say so."
"Clark, I'm not made of china, you know."
The ride to town was accomplished without any serious incident, particularly to Lieutenant Chow's upholstery. Upon their arrival at the police station, Clark called the Planet to report to his editor what had delayed them. As he was hanging up, Chow appeared with two small items in her hand.
"We found these in the car. Can you identify them?"
"Those are our wrist-talkers," Lori said. "They took them when they kidnapped us."
Clark shut off the vid phone. "Thanks, Lieutenant."
"We've got statements for you both to sign," she told them, "and a lineup. We might as well get it over with, now."
They returned to Lori's apartment an hour later, with a short detour by a hardware store, where Clark was allowed to purchase a second lock for Lori's door with the understanding that he would let her reimburse him, come payday.
While Clark busied himself with the replacement of her lock for the second time in three days, Lori sat on the floor beside him, watching while he worked, a frown on her face.
Finally Clark asked, "How are you feeling, now?"
"Okay," she said. "I'm just trying to figure out why this is happening, that's all. Those guys didn't pick us out to kidnap for no reason."
"No," Clark said. "I overheard the one guy--Ray--talking on the phone, though. He thought I was still asleep."
"What did he say?"
"They're after a package that your brother gave you."
Lori drew in her breath sharply. "That's what this is all about?"
"Evidently." He put down the screwdriver. "There, all done. I got the toughest lock I could find, this time."
"Maybe it'll do better at keeping people out," Lori said, absently. "I hope so, anyway. What else did he say?"
Clark got to his feet and reached down to give her a hand up. "Tell you what," he said. "We still haven't had anything to eat, and it's past five. Let's go over to my place. I'll cook dinner, we can talk about it and maybe figure out a few things about what's going on and what we can do about it." He smiled at her hesitation. "No funny stuff. I promise."
Lori blushed to the hairline. "I didn't mean...I mean, I know you wouldn't...I mean..."
He broke out laughing. "It's okay; I know you didn't. Really, though, do you have any objections? I'm a pretty good cook, honestly."
She nodded. "Okay. It's just that I've caused so much trouble for you already, and--"
"Hey." Clark put a finger across her lips. "I'll let you know if I think you've caused me too much trouble. As far as I can see, you haven't done anything. If anyone's caused me trouble, it's old Frank and Ray, don't you think?"
"Well...I guess when you put it that way--"
"All right, then." Clark handed her the new keys. "Here you are. Why don't you lock up here and we'll go."
One of the other tenants of Lori's apartment house was waiting for the elevator when they arrived at the end of the hall. Clark eyed the young man thoughtfully. He was tall, skinny, his long hair was definitely in desperate need of shampoo, and the aroma that wafted toward them indicated also a distinct lack of acquaintance with soap, water, or deodorant. He eyed Lori appreciatively up and down and whistled clearly through the gap provided by two missing front teeth. Lori moved a few inches closer to Clark.
The elevator arrived, and Greasy Hair entered the elevator. He glanced over Lori once more. "Come on, Babe," he said, invitingly. "I don't bite." He grinned. "Much."
Clark took her arm. "We'll walk, thanks." He opened the door to the stairs.
Lori exhaled softly.
"Nice neighbor," Clark commented as he gestured her in ahead of him.
"No kidding," Lori said. "And he's one of the better ones. At least he doesn't play bongo drums all night."
"The guys next door are an aspiring Period band."
"Let me guess. The early 1960s."
"The Beatnik era," Lori said. "You got it. They play for that club over on 26th, 'The Espresso Pit'. Usually they practice until about three a.m., but last night they weren't here, for once. They woke me up at five this morning when they came staggering in. They must have had an all night gig."
"I see," Clark said. "I don't blame you for having all those locks on your door, even if it hadn't been for Frank and Ray."
Lori laughed sourly. "Let's say it's an interesting neighborhood."
"Sounds like it, all right."
"The price was right," Lori said. "I may take a second job, though, so I can afford to move."
"I don't blame you," Clark said. "There must be a better place somewhere in Metropolis that isn't too expensive."
"If you find out about one, let me know," Lori said.
"I'll do that," Clark said.
The remainder of the conversation was somewhat limited as they descended the three stories to the ground floor. They emerged into the small entrance hall at last, and Clark pushed open the peeling door to the street.
The sun was sinking toward the west, already partially obscured by the tall buildings of the city, and the streetlights were beginning to glimmer. Clark directed Lori to the southbound slidewalk, and they joined the crowds of evening riders on the moving walk. Lori stuck close to Clark, her eyes roving over the people who milled around them, feeling unaccountably exposed.
"This is kind of creepy," she confessed to Clark. "Even if those guys are still in jail, we don't know who else might be out here, following us."
"I think they're probably still locked up," Clark said. "Kidnapping and possession of an illegally altered weapon are pretty serious offenses."
Lori shrugged uncomfortably. "I hope you're right. So," she said, deliberately turning her mind to the earlier events of the day, "what else happened while I was still knocked out? I guess you woke up a while before I did."
"Basically, just the phone call," Clark said. "Ray called a Houston number..." Quickly, he gave her a summary of what he had heard, not trying to soften the impact of Mr. X's orders. Lori remained silent.
"So, they were going to kill us both after they got the package," she said, when he finished.
"It sounded like it," he said.
"Brad wouldn't have given it to me if he'd thought it would put me in danger," she said.
"I'm sure he wouldn't have," Clark said. "Somehow, they figured out that you probably have it, though."
"Yeah." Lori's eyes widened as she thought of the other possibility. "Unless they're just going after my whole family! Clark...!"
"It's all right," he said. "I already thought of it. Superman has some of his family watching Marcy and your parents, just in case."
"When did you have time to do that?" she asked, a little surprised.
"I made a phone call while you were giving your statement to the police officer," Clark said.
"You did? Superman has a phone?"
"Sure," Clark said.
"Oh." Lori couldn't quite envision a super hero wearing a wrist talker, but there were probably a lot of things about them that she didn't know. "Thanks."
"Brad gave me the package, and told me to give it to you if something happened to him," she said.
"He said he trusted your reputation."
"Well," Clark said, "from what I overheard, my bet is they're not stopping whatever they're up to because of this package. They may be delaying while they try to get their hands on it, but from what the guy said, they might 'move' without it if they have to, and take the consequences."
"What do you think I should do?" Lori asked.
"Lori, Brad is your brother. It's your decision." He pointed. "There's my apartment house."
They stepped from the slidewalk and crossed the street. Clark slid his electronic key into a slot on the front door and the heavy panels opened inward.
"Wow,' Lori said. "I didn't know you lived in a security apartment. Which floor are you on?"
"Top," Clark said. "I'm on the twentieth, right under the roof. I like it there; I can see out but no one can see in, and I have a spectacular view of the whole city from my balcony. There's also a skylight, which is really nice on sunny days." He gestured her ahead of him. "'Won't you come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly'..."
Lori giggled. "Somehow, I have a lot of trouble seeing you as a spider. You're not the type."
He smiled. "Okay, I can live with that. The elevator is this way."
When Clark opened the door to his apartment, Lori wasn't sure what to expect, but it turned out not to be anything like she imagined.
It was, of course, considerably larger than her own tiny flat, but it was no luxury apartment, either. The living room was about twice the size of her entire place; a kitchen opened off on one side, and there was a door that must be to the bedroom on the adjoining wall. On the outer wall, she could see a balcony beyond the French windows, and glancing up, she saw a large skylight which let in diffused pinkish sunlight from the nearly setting sun.
Clark's furniture was somehow what she would have expected, however. A big, comfortable couch sat in the middle of the floor, before a vid screen, with a reclining chair at right angles to it. A couple of end tables held shaded lamps, and a big coffee table, with one, minor ring in the varnish, was positioned in front of the couch. A desk in one corner held a very modern computer, at sharp variance with its surroundings in its smart newness.
"Make yourself at home," Clark told her. "Would you like something to drink while I put something together for us? There's soda in the fridge, or I could make some tea."
"Soda's fine," Lori said.
"Help yourself," Clark said. "I'll be right back." He vanished into the bedroom.
Lori went into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and removed a soda. She slowly wandered back into the living area, the container in her hand, looking about with interest.
A wine rack against the wall adjoining the kitchen was half full, and some of the names made her open her eyes a little. Next to the bedroom door, shelves lined the wall adorned with books in several languages--old books, she thought, looking at the covers--and small, and not-so-small knick-knacks of all kinds. One item, an oddly carved statue, drew her attention; there was something vaguely familiar about it, but she couldn't put her finger on what it was.
Clark emerged from his bedroom, wearing a black T-shirt, slightly worn jeans and a pair of tennis shoes. Lori mastered the impulse to stare. Her highly professional co-worker had completely transformed into a younger, more casual man in the space of a few minutes. Wow! She had to swallow a couple of times before she found her voice.
"You look...different," she said.
"Well, I don't always wear a business suit, you know. I see you found my fertility statue," he added, nodding at the object she had been examining.
"Is that what it is?" she asked, looking back at it long enough to catch her breath.
"Yes. I got it from a medicine man in Borneo. It's supposed to ensure that a marriage is happy and--" he grinned slightly, "fruitful."
"Oh." For some reason, Lori felt herself blushing.
Clark didn't appear to notice. "So, what would you like for dinner tonight? How about a nice steak with mushrooms, baked potato and salad? Does that sound okay?"
"It sounds wonderful."
"Okay. Is red wine all right, or would you prefer milk or something? I have both."
"Well...I guess the wine would be okay."
"Ever tried it before?"
Lori hesitated, not wishing to sound unsophisticated, but she had the feeling Clark would know. "No, not really. I've had wine coolers, but I don't think they're the same."
"Well, why don't you try a sip, and if you don't like it there's the milk. I warn you, it's an acquired taste."
"All right." She followed him into the small kitchen. "Can I help?"
"Not at the moment. Why don't you have a seat and we can talk about this situation while I get things ready?"
"Okay." Lori took a swallow of soda. "I really don't know what to do. Brad said I should only give it to you if something happened to him. But if they're still going to do whatever he was trying to prevent, maybe we should open it. Or, maybe we should talk to Brad."
"That's a possibility. The number Ray dialed was a Houston number, according to Lieutenant Chow." Clark moved swiftly about the kitchen, assembling his ingredients. "Will microwaved potatoes be okay?"
"Sure." Lori took another swallow of soda. "Look, at least let me set the table."
"All right. The plates are in that cupboard." Clark pointed with the frying pan. "How do you like your steak?"
"Huh? Oh, medium, please." Lori busied herself setting the table, still thinking. "You said they mentioned a 'contact' who warned them we were--doing something. What do you suppose it was? Leaving the Planet, maybe?"
"Maybe. I've been wondering what he meant by it."
"Do you suppose someone in the newsroom is spying on us?"
"It wouldn't be impossible, I guess. Who would be keeping track of your comings and goings, though?"
"I don't--" She broke off suddenly as a thought occurred to her. "Why that little--"
"Fred!" Lori said, indignantly. "He's been sitting on his butt all week while I made most of the donut runs!"
"You were attacked during a donut run, weren't you?" Clark asked, slowly.
"Yes, I was. And he tried to send me out on one this afternoon, even though the whole office knew I was assigned to you."
"Huh. Interesting coincidence, but we don't have any proof."
Lori barely heard him. Her mind was racing. "Ms. Chow said the call was to somebody in Houston, right?"
"And they're apparently after this package Brad gave me."
"And we've figured Gaia's Children and maybe U&B Technologies--which is based in Houston, by the way--are trying to stop the Mayflower launch, right?"
"So, what if someone in the office is a member of Gaia's Children? If they needed to keep track of me, they could have drafted him--or her--to do it."
"And you broke into their main computer," Clark said. "You can--" He gestured toward the living room. "Go ahead. Borrow my computer. Take a look at their membership rolls and see." He grinned. "My password is 'potatochip'."
"'Potatochip'?" She giggled. "Okay."
"And if Fred is the one who set us up, I think John should know."
"If he is, I don't think we should let on we know," Lori said. "We'll find out more if he doesn't know we know."
"Absolutely," Clark said, a delighted grin on his face. "Has anyone ever told you how smart you are?"
"Let's wait and see what we find before you say that," Lori said.
"Well, even if it isn't Fred, I bet you're in the ballpark," Clark said. "Go ahead. I'll call you when dinner's ready."