Home II: Beginnings Part 2 By Nan Smith
Clark found himself smiling as he carefully grilled the steaks, prepared the salad, and checked the potatoes. He selected one of the softer red wines to go with the meal, but in case she didn't like it, he made sure there was soda and milk available. He'd known since the first day that she'd worked at the Planet that Lori was a milk drinker. He'd come upon her in the Planet's lunchroom, with a tuna sandwich and a carton of milk in front of her. She'd been a little embarrassed, he recalled with a smile. He'd heard her taking a ribbing from Fred in the serving line about her preference a few moments before, so he had quietly purchased a carton of milk instead of his usual cup of coffee to go with his steak sandwich, then casually approached her table and asked if the other chair was taken. He'd been making an effort since he met her to be sure she was completely comfortable with him; the night he'd taken her to Kerry's had been the proof that he'd succeeded.
Lori was shy, he knew, and a lot quieter than Lois had been. He could see in her, however, the foundations of the brilliant investigative reporter Lois had become, without some of the more traumatic events that had scarred his "little tornado" and led her to armor herself against people who could hurt her.
He discovered he was frowning at the thought. He didn't want that to happen to Lori. How often had he wished during his marriage to Lois, that he'd been there for her during her teens and early twenties to help ease some of the hurt inflicted on her by her dysfunctional parents and later, Claude? He'd lost count. The two of them had been very happy for all the years of their marriage; he liked to feel that he'd helped to make up for her early years. Lois had certainly behaved as though he had, but now here was Lori, who wasn't Lois, but who carried her soul, young and vulnerable, and in many ways unsure of herself, yet already showing flashes of what she could be.
If their relationship was to work out, he was going to have to be very certain she stayed comfortable with him, no matter what his age. The many years of experience he'd acquired in dealing with all kinds of people, and the fact that he didn't look anywhere near a hundred and thirty-one were definite assets. In fact, he'd noticed her eyeing him surreptitiously when she thought he wasn't looking. So far, so good.
But even if, for some reason, things didn't work out, if the age gap was too much for her to handle, he wanted the best for her, and to stay her friend. He could settle for that, if he had to.
On the other hand, there was nothing to say things wouldn't work out right, either. He was just going to have to make sure she regarded him as her closest friend, so that by the time he told her the full truth about himself, his age wouldn't be much of an issue. He had to let her know that she could count on him no matter what. That meant that before long the truth about his real relationship to Superman was going to have to come out, as it should have the first time. It was going to be a delicate thing to do, but it had to be done, and soon.
He could hear the faint hum of the computer in the living area, and a peek with his x-ray vision showed Lori concentrating on her task. That was another trait that seemed to be an integral part of her persona--the ability to focus completely on a task until she accomplished what she intended.
Whistling softly to himself, he transferred the steaks to plates and placed the potatoes and mushrooms next to them. Butter, sour cream and a little dish of chives went next to the salt and pepper shakers, and the cruet of salad dressing. Finally, he neatly zapped the candle in the center of the table with his heat vision, and stood back to examine the effect. Good. Now, should he interrupt what Lori was doing, or--
He was concentrating so hard on his options that Lori's triumphant exclamation startled him. He hurried into the living area. "I take it you found something?"
"Only the entire list of their membership," she said. "It's downloading right now."
"Nice job," he said.
"Thanks." She looked pleased. "Just let me finish here. The steaks smell terrific."
"They're all ready when you are."
"Ah, there it is. Done." She looked up. "Let's eat."
Lori sat back in her chair and regarded Clark across the table. He was smiling faintly at her, just listening to her chatter, she thought, and acting as if he enjoyed it. She'd been more or less monopolizing the conversation for a good twenty minutes, and Clark--well, how could the guy put up with it? Her mother always told her that she babbled when she got nervous, and it was probably true, but whether she admitted it or not, the day's adventures had left her a little shaken, and that seemed to open the flood gates.
He seemed to read her thoughts, or more likely the expression on her face gave her away, for he looked suddenly a little worried.
"Is something wrong, Lori?"
"No...yes." She inhaled deeply. "I'm sorry. I talk when I get nervous."
"Are you nervous of me?"
"Oh, no," she assured him. "It's just everything that happened today, and you're probably bored listening to me talking non-stop--" She broke off. "I'm doing it again, aren't I?"
"You've never bored me," he said.
"Really. In fact, I was wondering if I bored you. You haven't had much time for fun this last week."
"Yes, I have!" she contradicted him quickly. "I've liked working at the Planet--not all of it, of course, but especially working with you. You're such a...a great reporter. I don't think I could ever be as good, but I'm learning a lot."
He smiled. "I think you will be," he said. "In fact I'd bet on it."
"Yes." His teeth flashed, and Lori swallowed. The fact that Clark was as charming and attractive as he was didn't detract from the dinner, she thought. She had no idea what it was that had made him want to befriend her, but she wasn't going to argue.
"I have chocolate ice cream in the freezer for dessert," Clark suggested. "Do you still have room?"
Lori patted her stomach. "Well, I'm pretty stuffed. That was really delicious. Do you think we could wait a little while for dessert?" she added hopefully.
Clark chuckled. "Okay. In the meantime we can take a look at that list."
She nodded. "Let's."
There were not quite seven hundred names on the membership rolls of Gaia's Children, but Clark produced a list of the employees who worked at the Daily Planet building, and within a couple of minutes the computer had the match.
"Bingo," Clark said, quietly. He solemnly held out his hand and shook Lori's.
"Fred," Lori said. "When we're finished with this, I'm going to kill him."
"He may not know why they wanted him to spy on you," Clark said, slowly, "but after yesterday he had to suspect it wasn't on the up and up."
"If he thought at all," Lori said. "So Gaia is behind this after all."
"It sounds like it."
She stood up. "I'd like that ice cream, now."
"Are you all right?" Clark asked.
"Yes. Just tired and sort of confused."
"Just sit down there," Clark said. "I'll be back with your ice cream in a minute."
True to his word, he returned with the promised dish of chocolate ice cream, with a big puddle of fudge sauce poured over it and presented it to her with a flourish. "Here you go."
Lori accepted it and took a large bite. It was amazing how Clark always seemed to know exactly what she needed. She always felt better after a big dose of chocolate. "Thanks, Clark."
"You're welcome. We aim to please." Clark settled into the recliner with another, smaller bowl.
Lori ate in silence for several minutes. Finally, she said, "What do you think I should do? They're going to keep trying to get the package."
"And you said you think it won't stop them, anyway?"
"It may delay them, but you have to remember what we're dealing with here. The trouble with fanatics is that they're not only willing to die for their cause, they're willing to take a lot of innocent people with them."
"Like the people aboard the Mayflower."
"I think we need to talk to Brad. Maybe he can give us more to work with."
"Is the package safe where no one can find it?" Clark asked.
"It's safe," Lori said. "The day after Brad gave it to me, I put it somewhere no one will find it, and I won't lose it by accident. If..." She swallowed nervously, "If something happens to me, though, you'll get it."
Clark's smile faltered. "Nothing's going to happen to you. I won't let it."
She took a mouthful of slowly melting ice cream, looking at his concerned face. "Thanks. You're a good friend."
"I mean it, Lori. I won't let anything or anyone hurt you."
The funny thing was, she believed him.
She finished the ice cream and scraped the bowl, studying his face and the expression in his dark eyes. Clark meant it all right.
"Let me get rid of this," Clark said, suddenly. He scooped up the bowl and took it to the kitchen. When he returned a moment later, he settled down on the couch next to her. "On," he said.
The vid screen came on at once, showing some action movie in progress, with the hero blasting away at numerous bad guys with uncanny aim.
"News," Clark said.
The screen switched over at once to a local news channel. Lori relaxed back against the comfortable old couch, feeling the tension start to drain away for the first time since she had awakened from the gas, this afternoon.
"Tomorrow," Clark said, "we'll pick up our recording from Gaia HQ, and tell John about Fred, and we can try to get in contact with your brother. We definitely need to talk to him. And Arnie never got hold of me today, not that he had much of a chance, so I need to call him about that list..."
Lori nodded. His voice was becoming a pleasant murmur in the background, blending in with the cheerful voice of the weather forecaster. She let her head droop sideways a little against the comfortable smoothness of Clark's muscular shoulder. She really should sit up and take an interest in what he was saying, she thought, but her eyes were tired and grainy-feeling. She needed to rest them for just a few minutes. By that time, the battle was lost. Lori was asleep.
Lori stirred drowsily and snuggled deeper under the blanket. For some reason, the tiny, hard couch that had been her bed for a little more than a week was much more comfortable this morning. Somewhere a pleasant, male voice was speaking softly, and for some reason, the sound made her smile.
Slowly, she opened her eyes and blinked up at an unfamiliar ceiling. After a moment of blank surprise, memory returned. She had been at Clark's apartment last night and must have fallen asleep on his couch. There was a feather pillow under her head and what looked like a fine, hand-made quilt over her. From the bedroom, she could hear Clark's voice speaking. He must be talking on the phone. As she came to that conclusion, she heard a soft chime. The phone call had ended. She pushed the blanket aside and dropped her feet to the floor.
"Sleep well?" Clark asked. He was standing in the doorway of his bedroom, a cup of coffee in one hand.
"Yeah." She smothered a small yawn. "Sorry about that."
Clark smiled. "I'm not. You were pretty tired. Besides, while you were sleeping here, I knew you were safe from our friends." He started toward the kitchen. "Want some coffee?"
"Sure." Lori picked up her shoes and put them on.
"Here you go." He emerged from the kitchen with a second coffee cup. "I fixed it the way you like it."
"Thanks." She accepted the offering and sipped at it cautiously. "Mm, that's good."
"I thought we could stop at your place on the way, so you can change," Clark said. "I already talked to John. He's going to put Fred to reorganizing the Planet's morgue. That should keep him out of trouble for quite awhile."
Lori almost choked on her coffee and dissolved into giggles.
"I thought you'd like that," Clark said.
Lori nodded. "That's almost punishment enough," she said. "Not that I'm not going to make him pay for it, anyway."
"You don't see me objecting, do you?" Clark said.
Lori giggled again. "No," she said. "Just let me straighten myself up a little and we can go. By the way, where are we going?"
"Gaia HQ. We have tapes to retrieve. We can pick up breakfast on the way. I spoke to Arnie Frazier this morning, too. He'd like us to drop by as soon as we can, to talk about the list. Then, we need to get hold of your brother, if possible." He gestured toward his bedroom. "The bathroom's through there. I'll just sit here and finish my coffee."
An hour later, they approached the front entrance of STAR Labs.
A spreading lawn that separated it from other, neighboring structures looming over it on all sides, surrounded the low slung, white building. To it's right, on the other side of the avenue, was the corporate headquarters for MacroTech Enterprises, and to its left the towering edifice that housed VidCom Global Communications.
A security guard had them wait in the lobby until Arnold Frazier confirmed their appointment, then Clark and Lori clipped electronic visitors' badges to their collars and passed through the scanner into the inner areas of the building.
Lori followed Clark through a maze of hallways that left her completely turned around, but were obviously quite familiar to her companion. She had heard about the reputation of STAR Labs; everyone had, but until now, she had never expected to actually venture inside. The place was legendary. Eighty years ago, it had produced the prototype of the anti-gravity field, which made aircars not only possible but economical. Bernard Klein, the man who had been responsible for it, was listed in the history books along with Pasteur, Einstein, and other famous scientists in human history. More recently, STAR Labs had been the source of other great advances, including the drive that would carry the Mayflower across 4.3 light years of space to Alpha Centauri. Lori followed Clark silently, looking around in awe.
"Here we are." Clark stopped before a door and knocked.
Arnold Frazier was nothing like she had imagined, which was consistent with everything else that had happened to her so far this last week. Had it really only been ten days since she had gone full time at the Daily Planet? In some ways, it seemed like much more and in others much less. The scientist was a huge bull of a man. In height, he stood almost a foot taller than Clark, with curly hair and a full beard that were a rich, golden blond, and eyes of a clear, sky blue. His body was massive, with broad shoulders and muscular arms, and his hand completely engulfed Lori's when Clark introduced her as his assistant.
"So," Clark said, "I take it you have some ideas about this stuff? What might they be manufacturing with it?" He indicated the list that lay on the scientist's cluttered desk.
The huge man nodded. "Actually, there are a limited number of things that would use this particular combination of equipment," he said. His voice was deep, but surprisingly soft. "This one in particular stands out." He indicated the item in question with a thick forefinger. "The micro laser frequency scanner. It's not available to the general public."
Clark's heavy eyebrows rose. "Then what would this bunch be doing with it?"
"That's a very good question," Frazier said.
"What is it?" Lori asked, looking cautiously at the huge scientist.
"Well..." How someone like Arnie Frazier could possibly appear scholarly, when he looked for all the world like a professional wrestler, Lori couldn't have imagined until she saw it. "This is off the record, is that understood?"
"Naturally," Clark said. "You can trust Ms. Lyons. I guarantee it."
"A micro laser frequency scanner is a relatively new development," Frazier said. "In general, it's used in the process of covert signal transmission and reception. It's principle is similar to the one used in the pinhead mikes I gave you the other day, Clark, but infinitely more subtle and precise. You hide a signal in the background noise that's present in every radio transmission, but using this it's virtually impossible for even the most sensitive, modern instrument to detect it, even if the signal is known to be there." He paused for effect. "Unless, of course, you have the correct reception equipment, which also involves this device. Naturally this makes it extremely difficult to jam the signal, or trace it to its origin, for that matter."
"Besides communication," Lori asked, suddenly, "what could it be used for? And why would a group like Gaia's Children be using such a thing?"
"My question is where they got it," Dr. Frazier said.
"You'll notice that information isn't shown on this list, either," Clark said. "Where would it be available?"
"STAR Labs has one," Dr. Frazier said. "But the transfer of this kind of technology would be completely illegal. The only source would be one of the electronics firms that does classified work for the government."
Lori looked at Clark. "Like U&B Technologies."
"Could be," Clark said. "What about Lori's question, Arnie? What could it be used for, besides communications?"
Dr. Frazier scratched his beard. "The main use is by the military, but I can't really say anything more. What I've told you borders on the illegal, already."
"Would it be possible to, say, start a timer, or trigger a bomb with it? Or, maybe send instructions to a computer aboard a spacecraft?" Clark asked.
"I didn't tell you any of that," Dr. Frazier said. "But it would be logical, wouldn't it? Not that I'm saying that that is what it does."
"Hmmm," Clark said, as Dr. Frazier handed him the list. He folded the paper, and tucked it into a pocket. "I see. Thanks for the non-information, Arnie."
"You're welcome. I hope I was of some assistance. If you need any more--um--non-help, be sure to call me."
"A computer-generated list--especially one obtained the way we got this one--isn't credible evidence by itself," Clark said, as they descended the front steps of STAR Labs. "Not for something this serious. Until we get something more solid to incriminate Gaia, there's nothing law enforcement can do about it. We have to find something concrete that we can bring them."
"Yeah." Lori glanced back over her shoulder at the famous building. "You were right--he's certainly different."
"And very involved in his work," Clark said. "He's a really good guy, and definitely one of a kind. I can always count on him for help, though."
"So, now what?" Lori asked.
"Now we go back to the office and listen to the Gaia tapes," Clark said. "You need to try to contact Brad, and then you and I have to go somewhere private and talk. I have something important to explain to you--something you need to know."
"Did I do something wrong?" Lori asked.
"No," Clark said. He smiled wryly. "Absolutely not. You did something right. It's just time I explained something, that's all."
"Oh," Lori said, completely mystified.
Most of the material in the recordings was without interest to them.
Lori left a message for Brad to call her back, after being informed by an expressionless voice coming from an equally expressionless face on the vid screen, that Commander Lyons was extremely busy at the moment. She glanced up at Clark, a little annoyed.
"I think these people are a bunch of robots or something," she announced. "Nobody could keep their face that straight all the time."
"They say it comes from lots of practice," Clark said, a slight grin on his features, "but I have my doubts, too. Come on, let's go see what we managed to record, while we're waiting for him to get back to us."
The three recordings were separate from each other, and each was voice activated, so there were no long gaps of silence between conversations. Lori and Clark settled down to listen, but it wasn't until they had worked their way through the first two without results and were well into the third, two hours later, that Lori saw Clark sit up straight when a conversation began. His finger hit the stop button and he ran it back.
"What is it?" she asked.
"The caller's voice," Clark said. "It's the same person who was talking to Ray, back at that house."
"Are you sure? How can you tell?"
"Trust me," Clark said. "It's the same guy." He started the playback.
"Blackwell here," said the voice of the office's resident, clearly. They'd been hearing that voice for the past twenty minutes. A voice boomed out of the speaker.
"I'm looking for a progress report, Blackwell. What's the status of our project?"
"It's progressing well, sir. Our man has designed the program, and we'll be running an initial trial in the next day or two, as soon as we locate a suitable test subject."
"Excellent. Keep me updated. Remember, speed is of the essence. Is there any word on the package?"
"No, sir, not yet. I've dispatched the requested legal counsel, but the judge denied bail; the DA's office cited them as a flight risk. Our other team hasn't had any reasonable opportunity to acquire the girl. She's been with Kent constantly since--"
"I don't want to hear excuses, Blackwell. I want that package. When we execute the plan, if it's still in her hands, it will be a calamity. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir. We'll do our best."
"Do more than your best!"
"Yes, sir. We'll get it, sir." The chime of the vid phone disconnecting punctuated Blackwell's assurances.
Lori looked at Clark. "You were right. They're not stopping whatever it is. And they're still after me."
Clark put a hand over hers where it was clenched on the tabletop. "We knew they would be. I won't let them harm you. And we're going to stop whatever it is."
"But how can we stop them? We don't even know for sure what they're up to. And what if they come after us the way they did before?"
"It won't matter." Clark slipped the tiny chips from the recorder, dropped them into a case and tucked it into his jacket. "You and I, together, are going to find out what their 'project' is. As for the other..." He glanced around the conference room. "It's too public here. Come on; let's find a little more privacy. I've got something important to tell you."
"Where are we going?" Lori asked, as the two of them headed toward the elevator.
Clark glanced down at her, his face unusually serious. "I thought your place might be best. Or mine."
"Mine has kind of thin walls, if you want privacy," Lori said. "I think yours would probably be best."
Clark looked a little nervous, Lori thought, which was surprising. Her calm, laid-back co-worker never seemed ruffled by anything. One of the qualities she found most intriguing about him, aside from his charm and his admittedly devastating good looks, was the impression he gave of always being in control of a situation.
He glanced at her face again and smiled slightly. "Don't look so worried. It isn't anything bad--at least I hope not."
"Me?" she said. "You're the one who looks nervous!"
He grinned slightly. "I guess. This is kind of important, that's all, and I don't want you to be upset with me."
"Will I be?"
"I don't know. I hope not."
The elevator doors slid aside and Fred emerged. He glared at Lori as she moved sedately past him in Clark's wake.
"Done already?" she asked, as innocently as she could, while thoroughly enjoying the expression on his face.
"No," Fred answered shortly. As the elevator doors began to slide shut, Lori heard John bark Fred's name. The copy boy jumped, and slunk dejectedly in the direction of the editor's office.
Clark looked at her with mock-seriousness. "I could be wrong, but I think you're awfully pleased about Fred's misfortune," he said.
"Me?" she asked. "Whatever makes you say a thing like that after what he did to us?" She held up her forearms, still sheathed in NuSkin. "I think this stuff is about ready to come off, though."
Clark ran a finger gently across the thin covering. "I think you should give it another day or so, just to be sure."
"Well..." Lori began, reluctantly. The stuff made her feel conspicuous, but Clark's concern for her welfare was hard to ignore.
Whatever she was going to say was cut off in mid word as the elevator jolted violently, throwing her sideways into Clark, and she felt his arm clamp itself around her. Then, the moving car stopped with another, albeit slightly less-violent jerk.
"What th..." Clark looked up at the ceiling of the car, then down at the floor.
"What happened?" Lori asked, regaining her balance.
The elevator jolted again, and began to rise. Clark's arm released her carefully. "Are you all right?" he asked.
Lori nodded. "What happened?"
"We're headed up, and we shouldn't be." He broke off, tilting his head back, apparently looking hard at the ceiling. "So, that's it."
"What?" Lori asked again.
"I don't know how they managed it, but our friends, or their associates, are waiting for us on the roof," he said.
"How do you know?" Lori asked. "Besides, how would they know we were here?"
"There's a security camera in here for the protection of female employees," Clark explained. He pointed with his chin at the front left upper corner, and Lori looked, to see the small dark spot that marked the lens. "They're probably watching us now." He sighed, and it seemed to her as if he made a decision. "Okay. I planned to explain this to you very calmly and in private, in order to give you a chance to yell at me without witnesses." He grinned wryly. "But it looks as if they've forced my hand. Do you trust me, Lori?"
"You know I do." She threw a look over her shoulder at the lens again, feeling the skin between her shoulder blades begin to crawl.
He reached out calmly and hit the emergency stop button. The elevator jerked unsteadily to a halt between floors and an alarm began to sound.
"It should take them a couple of minutes to override that," he said. "In the meantime, we're leaving. If I give you a boost, can you open the ceiling panel?"
Lori nodded. "I think so." She still had no idea what he intended, but what she had said was true. When it had happened, she didn't know, but she trusted Clark Kent. If he said he could get them out, she would go along.
"Okay, step into my hands."
Lori obeyed. He lifted her with no apparent effort, until she was within inches of the ceiling, and held her steady. Lori fumbled with the little catch for a moment, then pushed the panel back.
Clark lifted her higher. "Climb," he instructed. "And hang on."
She grasped the edge of the aperture with one hand and thrust the other arm through the opening. Clark pushed from beneath, and with surprisingly little effort she emerged onto the top of the elevator. The surface rocked under her, and she grasped for handholds on the metal surface with fingers that suddenly felt cold in spite of the warmth that permeated the inside of the elevator shaft. Far above her, the blackness was broken by a tiny square of light. Below she could see the dim elevator shaft extending down into pitch blackness.
Clark boosted himself through the opening, his broad shoulders brushing both sides. He slid the door back into place and knelt beside her on the unsteady surface. There was a jolt, and the elevator rocked unsteadily. Lori gasped, and held more tightly to her small measure of safety.
"Here, hold onto me," Clark directed. He extended a hand.
Lori shifted her grip from the cold metal to Clark, and he stood slowly up on the swaying surface, bringing her with him.
"All right?" he asked.
She gulped and nodded. "What do we do now?"
"Now you find out something a little prematurely," he explained, drily. "I couldn't do it in there with the camera on us." He slipped one arm under her knees, and the other around her back. "Ready?"
She nodded jerkily, and turned her head to examine his face, only half visible in the gloom. Was it possible?
"Good. Put your arms around my neck and just relax. We'll be out of here in a minute."
Lori obeyed wordlessly, and felt them lift effortlessly into the air. She found herself holding her breath as Clark floated sideways several feet to clear the elevator, and began a slow, gentle descent.
For a second, she closed her eyes, then opened them again to look at him.
He hadn't changed. He was looking back at her, his expression a little concerned.
"Are you all right?"
She took a deep breath and tried to banish the detachment that seemed to have gripped her as they drifted slowly downward. "Yeah." The word came out as a squeak. She cleared her throat. "Yeah. I'm fine."
Above her metal screeched, and she looked up. The elevator was moving again, and as she watched, it vanished upward into the gloom. The only indication of its presence was when the tiny square of light at the top of the shaft was suddenly blocked out.
Their gradual descent came to a halt; Clark was hovering before the doors that opened to the second floor. He gave a small grunt of satisfaction. "Good. Nobody out there. Hang on, I'm going to have to use one hand."
Lori took a firmer grip on his neck and he removed the hand behind her back. With care, he worked his fingers between the doors and exerted pressure to force them open. When he had cleared a space sufficiently wide, he thrust the toe of one foot into the space, removed his hand and took a grip that afforded him better leverage. Lori understood. Focusing on what he was doing seemed to lift the veil of shock that had descended on her thinking processes. Clark didn't want to leave any marks on the doors, any evidence of how they had escaped the elevator shaft. Slowly, she began to smile. Let them wonder!
The space between the doors was wide enough for her, now. Carefully, Clark released her and held her until she had one foot securely on the floor, and both her hands were firmly grasping the doors. With one of his hands bracing her from behind, she squeezed through them, and was safely in the hall beyond. Once his hands were both free, Clark was able to ease the doors open farther, and a second later they were standing together before the elevator, with the doors tightly closed, and no evidence to betray how they had gotten here.
For a long moment, they simply stood staring at each other, Clark with a touch of apprehension in his expression. Then he said softly, "Are you mad, Lori?"
She gave a tiny smile and shook her head, the feeling of unnatural calmness still possessing her somewhat. "No, I don't think so. Surprised. Maybe stunned. I'm not sure what I am, but I don't think I'm mad. Are you going to do something about those guys on the roof?"
"Yeah. Come on. I don't want to leave you here alone, and the stairwell is the fastest." He opened the door to the stairs and gestured her through.
They were on the second floor landing, and Clark glanced around, checking the area thoroughly, Lori thought. That must be the only way he was able to maintain his incredible secret. As she watched, he took a step back.
Lori blinked, then gasped as he spun suddenly, the miniature whirlwind that he had become changing from grey to blue and red in the space of seconds.
He came to a stop; Superman stood before her, the man who had saved her life four months ago, who had come in a flash when she had cried out in shock and surprise the night she had discovered her ransacked apartment, her coworker whom she admired and respected. He held out his hands to her.
"Come on," he said, and a little smile played on his lips. "I think your first Superman exclusive is waiting."
"Somehow," Clark was saying to her almost an hour later, "they remotely seized control of the Daily Planet building's central computer, according to the techs. They don't know how, yet."
He had just returned from speaking to the frustrated computer techs that had been brought in to find and undo whatever damage had been done. Lori examined his face closely, for about the hundredth time since he had shown her the truth and wondered how she had ever been deceived.
And, yet, in his Clark persona, he didn't seem like Superman. Superman stood stiffly, spoke formally; Clark was casual and relaxed, but when she had met Superman for the first time that night on campus she had been impressed by his kindness and consideration for her, and thinking back now, she knew why his smile had seemed so familiar. Superman didn't smile as much as Clark, but when he did, it was identical to her friend's.
Friend? Did Superman have friends?
Well, why not? she asked herself. He had a family; just because they flew around in the skies of Metropolis didn't make them less of a family than anyone else's, and Clark was certainly her friend. Being one of the supermen didn't mean he didn't have feelings. In fact, she was sure he did, as both Superman and Clark. So, he was still her friend, a good friend, a friend who had saved her life, and who had trusted her with something about himself that she suspected not many people knew. Did anything else matter?
Clark was looking at her, a trace of worry in his expression. It had been there since he had rescued her from the elevator. That, more than anything, convinced her that he hadn't changed.
"Are you all right?" he asked, also for about the hundredth time in the last hour.
She nodded. "Yes, I am. Are you?"
"Clark, you look awfully worried. Don't be. Nothing's changed--well, nothing important."
"I hope not."
"Trust me, it hasn't. That whole thing with the computer is spooky, though. I keep thinking about what Dr. Frazier told us this morning. Do you suppose it was a test of the micro laser whatchamacallit?"
Clark settled a hip on the corner of her desk. "I suppose it might have been the micro laser thing, but these people seem to have access to quite a bit of advanced technology and people who know how to use it. That altered stunner wasn't any accident, either. Whoever worked on that really knew what he was doing."
"Yeah," she said. "I heard Lieutenant Chow say something about that on the way to the police station. My attention was more on my stomach than on what the two of you were talking about."
"Yeah," Clark said, ruefully. "I'm sorry about what happened. It seemed like an opportunity to learn something about what was going on."
She made a face. "Don't apologize. It wasn't too comfortable at the time, but it was worth it." She lowered her voice. "At least now I know why you weren't sick. I don't feel like such a wimp."
"You were never a wimp!" Clark said. He paused. "Look, are you sure you want to put my name on this?" He gestured at her computer screen. "It's your first Superman exclusive."
"Yeah." Lori nodded. "It's only fair. Without you, I wouldn't have gotten the interview or the story. Besides, you helped me write it. I'd feel like a fraud if I didn't give you at least half the credit."
"I only tweaked it in a few places. Your writing style is fine."
"Yeah, 'tweaked it'--and improved the article a hundred percent."
He smiled. "Okay, 'Kent and Lyons' it is." He leaned forward and spoke more softly. "We still need to talk. I want to explain some things."
She smiled, too. "I want to ask you some things, myself."
"I figured that," Clark said. "Since this kind of disrupted our plans, may I take you to dinner tonight, Ms. Lyons? We can discuss it, then."
"Will it be private?" she asked. "This isn't something that I want to broadcast."
He grinned suddenly. "I knew I was right about you. Yes, it will be private. I was thinking Chez Kent again, unless you have an objection."
"Not a bit." Lori put a timid hand on his sleeve. "I want to know why you decided to tell me, Clark. You've only known me for about four months...off and on. And more off than on, really."
"That's the easiest question to answer of all," Clark said, quietly. "Think about it, and I'll bet you figure it out for yourself." He winked at her, a cheerful grin on his features. "I know who my friends are, and whom I can trust. Now, you better send that to John. He still needs to fill up space on page three, and I have to make a call to Lieutenant Chow."
"Right," Lori said. "After that, I'll try calling Brad again."
Brad was still "extremely busy", according to the man who took her call. Lori left another message for her brother to call and disconnected, with an undefined sense of apprehension nagging at her. After a moment, she tried another number.
"What's the matter?" Clark asked, from behind her.
She almost jumped. "Don't do that, Clark! I've had enough scares today!"
"Sorry. What's wrong?"
How did he know that? she wondered. "Brad is supposedly busy, and no one answers his home phone. Sharon quit her job a month ago, so she could finish all the details before the Mayflower launch, so she should be there. Something's not right."
"Hmmm." Clark frowned. "I just talked to Velma Chow. That number Ray dialed was to a phone bank in an office building." He paused significantly. "U&B Technologies, which I'm sure is a complete surprise to you. They couldn't trace which office it was routed to, though, so that's a dead end. Let me try a couple of my contacts in Houston and see what they can find out about your brother." He lowered his voice. "Ultra Woman's been keeping tabs on Brad for me; she may be able to tell me something. While I'm doing that, I'd like you to do something for me."
"Velma Chow told me the owners of the house where we were held are a Belinda and Morrison Williams. The address was 143 Ostrich Circle in Deer Grove, New Troy. See what you can find out about them, would you? Where they work, who their closest relatives are, criminal records, and so forth. Chow said they're on vacation in Hawaii right now, so someone might have known, and--"
"Sort of borrowed their house," Lori said. "I get it. I'll do my best." She laughed shortly.
"What?" Clark asked.
"The name of the development--Deer Grove. If any of the residents there saw a deer within miles of the place, they'd probably call animal control."
"Probably," Clark said. "You know developers. Image is everything. The one next door is called Wolf Hollow. The only wolves there are almost certainly of the two-legged variety."
"That's for sure," Lori said. "Okay, I'll do my best."
An hour later, Clark put down the phone, frowning. At her little desk, Lori was still absorbed in her research. He rose and headed for John Olsen's office.
A quick peek with his x-ray vision showed John apparently editing articles for the evening's publication. Clark knocked softly.
"Come in," John's voice said.
Clark entered and shut the door. "May I have a few moments of your time, John?"
"Sure." John made a final edit and leaned back in his chair. "Nice little article."
"Lori did most of it. I was too busy catching bad guys," Clark said, with a smile.
"I still spot the trademark Kent touch. You're sure you want to share the byline?"
"John, it was her story! She insisted I put my name on it, too, because I touched it up in a couple of places."
John regarded him for a moment. "I'll take your word for it, then. Kent and Lyons it is. I take it there was actually more to it than this?"
"Some, but nothing we could print. Lori knows, John."
John's eyebrows rose. "About you? That was fast. You're sure you can trust her not to slip?"
"As sure as I am of you. She only knows that I'm--" He made the flying motion with his hand. "I figured that was enough for one day."
"I'd say so," John said, a faint grin on his lips. "She's a cool one. I'd never have guessed anything out of the ordinary happened."
"Yeah." Clark paused uncertainly.
John waited for him to speak, and when he didn't, asked, "Anything else?"
"Yeah. There may be a problem with her brother's family. They seem to have disappeared. It may not be as bad as it sounds, but I think I'm going to be headed for Houston shortly, and I'd like to take her along."
"Any particular reason? She'd be safer here."
Clark shook his head. "Not really. I'll fill you in later, but I want her with me. Besides, she's observant, and we work well together."
John eyed him, a little smile on his lips. "Fallen like a rock, haven't you, Clark?"
"Yeah." Clark gave a sheepish laugh. "Is it that obvious?"
"To me it is. I've been there myself, remember?"
"I know. How is Marilyn these days?" Clark asked.
"Beautiful, as always." John smiled at the mention of his wife, then nodded abruptly. "All right, take her along, but I want the whole story, later."
"You'll get it. I--" He broke off. "Uh-oh."
"The London shuttle on approach to Metro Shuttleport is out of control."
"Go." John waved at the window. "Now."
Clark was gone on the word.
Lori looked up from her computer screen as the monitors lining the walls of the newsroom suddenly increased their volume, and stared in horror at the scene that appeared.
The shuttle flight from London was approaching the landing strip at Metro Shuttleport, but something was badly amiss, even to her untutored eyes. The huge craft was coming in too fast, and at too steep an angle; that much was obvious, and it wasn't leveling out. Lori wanted to look away, but her eyes remained locked to the horrifying sight.
A familiar red and blue figure, the size of a gnat, appeared on the screen, rocketing toward the stricken shuttle from behind, and gaining as the entire newsroom watched. The silence was so complete that when someone coughed softly, it made her heart jump. Lori found she was gripping the arms of the chair so hard her fingers were beginning to cramp.
The red and blue gnat matched speeds with the shuttle, eased up underneath and made contact with the huge underbelly, then, with a slowness that was literally agonizing, the angle of approach changed. Clark wasn't attempting to fight the craft's momentum, Lori realized a second later. He was working with it. Gradually, the shuttle's nose began to lift.
The pilot must have realized what was happening, for the engines abruptly cut off. Suddenly aware of the need to breathe, Lori exhaled and inhaled explosively.
A hand came down gently on her shoulder, and she looked up to find John Olsen standing just behind her, eyes fixed on the monitor screens.
Clark was bringing the shuttle in now, in a wide, gradual turn. Lori forced herself to take another breath. She had, of course, seen the super heroes in action before on the vid screen, but for some reason, this time it was a far more personal experience. As she watched, the cameras zoomed in on Superman as he gently lowered the enormous shuttle onto the runway.
"He did it," her editor said, softly. "Every time I see something like that, it takes my breath away." He looked down at her and there was a smile in his eyes. "I hear you and he had a little adventure a while ago."
"Well, yes. He gave me an exclusive," Lori said. "Superman was very nice to--"
"I know," John said. "Clark told me." He smiled at her. "You'll do," he said, a little obscurely. "Nice job."
It was over an hour later that Clark walked into the newsroom from the stairwell.
Until the techs determined what had been done to the elevator, the car was locked on the ground floor; employees were already grumbling, Lori knew. Security had had a few choice words for Clark and her about their escape from the elevator, too, but Clark had taken it in stride, and pointed out that if the elevator had malfunctioned in a slightly different way they might have been killed. He and Ms. Lyons had not wanted to wait to find out.
Lori had kept quiet and let him handle it, simply observing from her new perspective. Clark was so confident and competent. He seemed to know exactly what to say to handle people. She wished she knew how he did it.
Watching him now, coming across the office, she saw what she had noticed before, the restrained power and subtle grace in his movements. Clark, she admitted very privately, was an extremely attractive man.
Which brought to mind the events in the elevator. For a moment, she replayed it in her head, when the elevator lurched and he'd caught her and held her tightly to his side. In spite of all the other things going through her mind...she'd enjoyed that part.
Why had he told her about his other self? The question had been in her mind ever since it had happened. It had a lot of implications, some of which she wasn't going to deal with right now. If Superman's real life was that of a reporter, then it followed that he probably wasn't the only one who maintained a dual identity. They were all descendants of the first Superman who had married an Earth woman, and had children. So, who had Superman been in his civilian life?
Slowly, she lifted her gaze to look across the room toward the rows of photos on the wall near the elevator. She'd seen the picture of Clark's ancestor, the first Clark Kent, and his partner, Lois Lane, who had also been his wife. Lane and Kent--one of the legendary reporting teams in the Planet's history. She'd mentioned then how much Clark looked like his ancestor, and Clark had looked a little uncomfortable. The date on that photo was right, too--1998...a little over five years after the appearance of the Kryptonian. Unless there was a big flaw in her reasoning, that Clark Kent had been the original Superman, a reporter here at the Planet when it had been only a newspaper. No wonder Clark had said the Kents had a lot of ties to the Daily Planet.
She closed her eyes and rubbed them with the heels of her hands. This was going to take a lot of thinking about later, when she had more time. For some reason, Clark had chosen to befriend her, spent a good deal of time with her, and seemed to enjoy her company. He'd said to think about why he'd told her the truth about himself, which had to be one of the biggest secrets going, because it told her that not only Superman, but the other supermen and women out there also led lives as ordinary people. They didn't just live on some lonely mountaintop somewhere. Instead, they lived and worked among the rest of humanity as everyday men and women. The super family's secret couldn't be carelessly cast around to just anyone...so, why had he told her?
An outrageous thought popped into her head, only to be dismissed at once. Could he possibly be attracted to her? No, of course not. If Marcy's appearance hadn't gotten his attention, why should he look at her? She looked nothing like Marcy; she was practical instead of outrageous, she didn't have a clue how to be flirtatious, she was shy and inhibited, and, although she was admittedly a reasonably attractive woman, next to her spectacular sister she was just, plain mousy. And she babbled when she got nervous, too, a trait her mother had assured her was guaranteed to chase away potential romantic partners. Since Mother wanted her to be a successful career woman, that wasn't so bad from her point of view.
Lori wasn't so sure. She certainly wanted a career as an investigative journalist--that had been her goal for years, but it didn't mean marriage and a family was out of the picture, either. And then, after meeting Clark, all her mother's warnings about marriage stifling a woman's career had begun to seem a little hollow.
Oh, Clark was at least eight years her senior, married once and now a widower to boot, but somehow that didn't seem to matter much.
But he had turned out to be Superman, too. He could have just about any woman he wanted; why would he be interested in her now, if he ever had been? She was just a kid, anyway.
Lori sighed, feeling unaccountably depressed, then determinedly brought her mind back again to the question of why he'd told her about his other job.
He'd said he knew he could trust her; that might be part of the reason, she supposed, but not all of it, surely. He wouldn't tell every person he trusted about Superman. Why her, specifically?
"Lori?" Clark's voice brought her out of her thoughts. "Is anything the matter? You look upset."
How did he do that? she wondered again, composing her features quickly.
"No--not really. I'm a little worried about Brad and Sharon--and the kids."
"I don't blame you." He settled on the corner of her desk again. "I talked John into sending you with me to Houston. We can leave as soon as you get the chance to pack a bag. In the meantime, I've got some news."
"I talked to various technical personnel about the shuttle that nearly crashed. They were more willing to open up to--you know--than they might be to a reporter. Somehow, the shuttle's computer malfunctioned."
Lori felt the blood draining from her face. "The test they were talking about," she said.
"Probably," Clark agreed, very soberly.
"Clark, what are we going to do?"
"We're going to catch them and expose their scheme. I don't think freedom of expression covers killing people and crashing multi-billion dollar space ships."
"Neither do I."
"Did you manage to dig up anything?"
"Yes, I did." Lori brightened slightly. "It might be what we're looking for."
"Okay, let's hear it."
"I checked on any criminal records for both of them--none. They're model citizens as far as I could discover," Lori said. "None of their close relatives has any record I could find, either, but then I got an idea and decided to see if any of their names matched the membership list for Gaia's Children, or if any of them have any background in technology. That's where I hit the jackpot."
"I see. Okay, I'll bite. What did you find?"
"Belinda Williams' brother, Edwin Gossett, is some kind of high-ranking type with Gaia's Children," she said. "And not only that, he's a senior vice president for U&B Technologies. Address of record: Houston, Texas."
"That's it," Clark said, softly. "The connection. Lori, you're brilliant!"
"Thanks." Lori was almost afraid to make the next suggestion for fear of what they might find. "I think we better open the package. Brad said to open it if something happened to him. If he's disappeared, that's something, isn't it?"
Clark nodded. "I'd say so. I wanted to suggest it, but he's your brother. I didn't want to push, either."
"I'll get it." She got to her feet.
Clark's eyebrows went up. "It's here?"
"Yeah. It's in the safe in Mr. Olsen's office. I asked him to put it there for safety the day after my graduation."
The package was sitting innocently on a shelf in the very back of the office safe. John Olsen retrieved it without comment. "Here you go."
"Thanks, Mr. Olsen." Lori took it, surprised to find that her hand was shaking. "I really appreciate this."
"No problem, Lori." John didn't look at the package. "Be careful while you and Clark are in Houston. These people are playing hardball."
"I promise I will be, sir."
"I'll hold you to that." He turned back to his computer. "Bring me back a story, but don't get yourself killed. I'll see you in a few days."
Clark had already turned off his computer and was tidying up his desk when she left the editor's office. He closed a drawer as she approached and stood up, not even glancing at the little parcel. "We can open that when we're in private. Come on, let's go."
He grinned slightly. "No time like the present. We're going to find out what happened to your brother and his family, and catch these people."
"Okay. Let me just shut down my computer."
"I'll let John know we're leaving." Clark stood up and headed for his editor's office.
"Which flight are we taking?" Lori asked, as they descended the stairs to the ground floor.
Clark winked at her, and lowered his voice. "Superman Express, unless you have an objection. I guess we'll have to put off dinner at Chez Kent until later. This is a bit more important."
Lori nodded agreement. "I know. It can wait."
Clark pushed the lobby door open for her. "When this is all over, we still need to have that talk. I want to explain some things as soon as I can, though."
"Yeah. I guess you don't tell this sort of thing to everyone, do you?"
"Definitely not." Clark let her go ahead of him through the revolving door, then indicated the slidewalk. "You'll probably need to pack an overnight bag, just in case, then we'll go."
As they boarded the slidewalk and took their places among the late afternoon crowds that were the beginning of rush hour, Clark glanced around, trying to spot anyone exhibiting any undue interest in them. He could see Lori doing the same, and instinctively slipped a protective arm around her shoulders. She didn't object, and he could hear her heart rate speed up slightly. He glanced at her briefly, noting a slight flush on her cheeks, and wondered exactly how much he should tell her.
It was funny, really. He had no problem dealing with most people. He'd gotten so he could read even subtle nuances in expression and body language like a book. Coupled with other physiological reactions, like pulse rate and the changes in scent produced by different emotions, it was as close to mind reading as it was possible to get. The Kryptonian telepathic ability didn't really compare to it, as that was primarily verbal communication, and didn't involve anything past the surface thoughts, anyway. But with Lori, he was unsure. He and Lois had been so attuned to each other in the later years of their marriage that often they didn't even need to speak to know what the other needed or wanted, but Lori wasn't Lois. In some ways she was quite mature, in others she was very young and unsure of herself. He sensed she was a good deal less confident than she wished to appear, too, and above all, he had no wish to damage her slowly developing self confidence. He had a strong suspicion her mother had done enough in that department already. Her reactions to Marcy the day of her graduation told him that there was some conflict there, too, and he could guess what it might be. He personally didn't care for Marcy's kind of flamboyant beauty, although he knew that many men did. To him, Lori was infinitely prettier than her sister, but Lori probably didn't see it that way. That was something he was going to have to work on. At least the way she reacted to him in the elevator, when he'd held her to him to save her from falling, had told him that she wasn't indifferent to him, and he'd seen her sneaking glances at him last night at his apartment. That was definitely a good sign. Maybe it was time to let her see some interest on his part--subtly, so as not to scare her away. He was prepared to take as long as necessary to win her love, but he didn't want to wait too long. The human mating dance was a complicated thing, he mused. One misstep could set you back right to the beginning if you weren't careful. And it wasn't any easier the second time around.
At Lori's apartment, she gathered a small overnight case, packed a change of clothing for the office, a set of casual clothes, her nightdress and toiletries. While she was doing that, Clark made a quick thirty-second trip to his place for the needed supplies, and was back before she finished snapping the catches. Her eyes widened at the show of ability. "Wow, that didn't take long."
"Didn't need to." He glanced at the little package lying on the table. "Ready for the moment of truth?"
She nodded reluctantly. "I suppose so. Can't you just x-ray it?"
He hesitated. "I could, I guess. Do you want me to?"
Lori swallowed, then made a face. "I guess not. Here. You open it."
Clark took the package, and tore off the wrapping. Inside was a small box, and, after a brief hesitation, he opened it.
"What is it?" Lori asked.
Clark upended the box. A slip of paper and a key dropped into his palm. "It looks like a key for a safe box." He flattened out the paper. "Yeah. It's one of those places that rents them out. Here's the address, and the number of the box. It's in Houston."
"That makes sense," Lori said. "I guess we'll have to wait until we get to Houston, then."
"We'll have to wait until tomorrow," Clark said. "They close at four. It's six-thirty here, now."
"What? Let me see that!"
Clark held out the paper for her to read, and Lori stared at the hours of operation in dismay. "I don't believe this!"
"Lori, it's okay." Clark folded up the paper and tucked it and the key into her hand. "We already have a pretty good idea where to look, tonight, and we can head for this place first thing in the morning."
He could see her visibly take control of herself, and smiled, not without a touch of sadness. Lori had many similarities to Lois; but there were things that were definitely unique to her, and patience seemed to be one of them. For a moment, he missed the human tornado that Lois had been; there was a part of him that would never stop missing her, he knew. Lori wasn't Lois, but there were things about her that he had already begun to love as well, and she had whatever it was that inevitably drew them together throughout time, for want of a better word, Lois's soul, the other half of his own without which he was incomplete.
"What's the matter?" Lori's voice pulled him out of his thoughts.
"You looked so sad for a minute. Is something wrong?"
"No, not really." With an effort, he shook off the unaccustomed mood. "Are you ready to go?"
She nodded, thrust the key and slip of paper into her overnight case and snapped the catches a second time. "I think so. If I've forgotten anything, I guess I can buy it there."
"If you need something, I'll come back for it," he said. "You told me once you're not afraid of heights--does that include cloud height?"
"Uh huh." Lori smiled confidently at him. "I know you won't let me fall."
"Not a chance," he said softly. He met her eyes for a long moment, a smile in his own, then turned and scooped up the case. Quickly, he slipped the hand holding the small bags under her knees and the other behind her back and lifted her in his arms. "Put your arms around my neck," he added. "I'm going to take us up fast, before anyone notices."
They lifted off and floated out the window. Lori reached back to close it behind them and then Clark made a rapid ascent straight up.
Lori was completely silent until they leveled off just below the layer of rain clouds that had been slowly gathering since shortly before noon. When he looked back at her, she was watching him with a puzzled expression in her eyes. She looked down at once, and he could see a flush creeping up her neck. Hoping that she understood what he'd tried to tell her, Clark set his course for Houston and poured on the speed.
The Tumbleweed Motel was a little picturesque establishment on the outskirts of the vast, modern city of Houston.
Lori set her dressing case down in the small, clean room, opened it and removed her hairbrush. A glance in the mirror showed her that, as she had feared, her hair looked as if she had been in a high wind. She grimaced, and glanced involuntarily at the connecting door that led to Clark's room. She had a few moments to freshen up, and then she and Clark would head out for the first part of their investigation. They had decided that they would have to adjust their strategy, depending upon what they found, but the first thing they needed to do was to locate Edwin Gossett. Clark wanted to hear him speak in order to confirm that he was or was not their man.
During the flight, her initial shyness at Clark's veiled hint had died down, to be replaced by cautious optimism, but she knew he was right; if she'd understood him correctly, it was something the two of them could talk out later. The top priority here was to find Brad and his family, and locate any proof that existed involving a connection between U&B Technologies and Gaia, and what their scheme might be involving the Mayflower.
Outside, she heard a characteristic whoosh that had become familiar to her in the last few days and for an instant wondered where Clark was going. Then there was a knock on the connecting door between their rooms. Clark's voice said, "Lori? Are you decent?"
"Just a second," she called, and hurriedly ran the brush through her hair. A moment later, she knocked on the panel. "I'm ready, Clark.
Clark opened the door at once. "Come on in. I'd like to introduce you to someone."
A woman was standing behind Clark, and the resemblance between the two of them was unmistakable. She was tall, with jet-black hair, Clark's faintly Asian eyes, and wearing the uniform of Ultra Woman, the super hero who made Houston her home. Like Superman, she wore no mask, thereby leaving the very clever impression that she had nothing to hide.
"This is Lori Lyons, my assistant," Clark said. "Lori, this is--"
"Rhonda Klein." Ultra Woman held out a pink-gloved hand. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Ms. Lyons. Clark's told me a lot about you and your family." She glanced at Clark's surprised face. "Don't look so flabbergasted, Clark. If you trust her, that's good enough for me."
Clark gave a little laugh. "Thanks, Ronnie."
"I'm pleased to meet you," Lori said, feeling slightly stunned by the speed of events.
"Call me Ronnie," Ultra Woman said. "Now, to business. I was about to call you when you called me, Clark. I'd been trying to track down Commander Lyons and his family for over an hour, after I discovered he was missing. Apparently, the police and the military are, too. The only information I've been able to turn up is that about noon they were seen to get into a green or blue aircar with Texas plates. They were accompanied by two men in business suits, no other description. I've been going crazy trying to dig more info from those close-mouthed military types. They're denying there's any problem. I'm at a dead end."
"That's typical," Clark said. "Lori found some stuff that might help, though..."
When he finished, Rhonda Klein nodded thoughtfully. "That's more than I've found out. Okay, now what?"
"If this Gossett is behind Commander Lyons' disappearance," Clark said, "we have a lead, at least. U&B Technology has apparently been donating money and some technical expertise to Gaia. We need to try to find a connection between the two, at least enough to raise some suspicions. But first, we need to locate Lyons and his family. Would U&B Technology still be open at this hour?"
Rhonda Klein glanced at the practical metal wrist talker she wore on her left hand. "They're probably open for another hour, at least."
"We need to get in there," Clark said.
"They're a high tech firm," Rhonda said, "with government contracts. They're going to have fairly high security."
"Like STAR Labs?" Lori asked.
"Probably," Clark said.
"If they're like STAR Labs, it seems to me that getting into the building would be the hardest part." She had been feeling nearly useless in the presence of the super heroes, but this was something about which she felt fairly certain.
"I agree," Clark said. "Once we're past the security checkpoint, it gets easier, but we'll still need employee badges. I suppose we could do some super speed pickpocketing."
"But those won't have the right pictures," Lori objected. "I have an idea. They wouldn't have a security checkpoint on the roof, would they?"
"Probably not," Clark said. "There's always a sensor field with metal detectors; an aircar can't come within a hundred yards without being spotted and warned off. We can do a little recon work to be sure, but we still need badges."
"How about we print our own?" Lori suggested. "If I can get into Security's computer, I can do it."
"You weren't able to get into their system before," Clark said. He was looking at her expectantly.
"No, but that was from the outside," Lori said. "I couldn't get through their firewall. If you can get me inside, I can tap into their LAN system directly. Remember, I told you my best friend in high school taught me some things about hacking. I'll need photos of the three of us, the computer from my apartment, and the little brown, leather case on the floor beside it. And some super help."
"You'll have all of that you can use," Clark said. "What's your idea?"
"Okay," Lori said. "Here it is. See what you think..."
She spoke quickly, outlining what she had in mind. When she finished, Clark looked at Rhonda. "Do you see anything wrong with it?"
"Nope," Rhonda said. "I like it."
"Oh, one last thing," Lori said. "We'll need some of that plastic stuff they use to laminate the badges."
"I can get that from Planet Security," Clark said. "I'll be right back."
The employees of U&B Technologies normally entered the building through a security gate in the front lobby. There, their badges were checked via a scanner that verified that the employee in question did indeed belong in the building. They had no reason to expect the unauthorized personnel to enter from above.
The sun was sitting on the horizon when Lori, Clark and Rhonda touched lightly down on the roof of U&B Technologies. Clark located the alarm and the lock on the roof entrance to the stairs. A narrow beam of laser vision took care of the obstacles, and he glanced at his two companions.
They looked back at him, Lori a little nervously, but as determined as Rhonda and he. She clutched her portable computer, which he had fetched a short time ago from her Metropolis apartment. "All set," he said. "Everyone ready?"
Both women nodded.
"You remember your moves?"
Again, they nodded.
"Let's go, then. Rhonda, you're first. As soon as the fire alarm goes off, that's our signal."
"Got it." Rhonda eased open the door, and was suddenly gone. Clark lifted Lori in his arms, and they waited for a slow count of ten.
He was listening so closely that the shriek of the fire alarm made him jump, even though he was expecting it. Then he shifted into high speed.
In a few seconds, they reached the hall on the third floor of the five-story building where U&B Technology's security office was located. Down near the end of the hall, people milled about like a swarm of angry bees, and the smell of smoke was heavy in the air. Rhonda had apparently used her heat vision to ignite the contents of a trashcan, and the resulting furor was all they could have hoped.
Clark glanced quickly into the security office and the adjoining offices. All of them were empty. Everyone had gone to see the fire.
Next to the security office was a storeroom, a detail that the thorough x-ray vision-reconnoiter by Clark and Rhonda ten minutes before had established. Clark and Lori entered; Clark closed the door and switched on the lights.
"Okay," Lori whispered. "Find me the cable."
This was Clark's part. With his x-ray vision, he scanned the wall and located the network cable that ran to Security's computer. A quick and precise punch and he reached through the hole he had created to pull out a loop of the cable. "Here you go. It's all yours."
Lori nodded. Her previous nervousness appeared to desert her as she examined the cable with professional detachment, and Clark watched with respect as she went to work.
From her pocket, she produced what she had described briefly to him as a "vampire tap", a jury-rigged clip with a sharp, thin, needle-like protrusion extending from it. When she clamped it around the cable and tightened the lock screw, the protrusion penetrated the cable like the proverbial vampire and his hapless victim. That done, she hooked the clip to a short cable that extended from the back of her computer, and snapped the computer on. With quick, sure motions, she began to type.
"Gotcha," she breathed a few seconds later. "Three security badges coming up."
"I didn't know this kind of thing could be done," Clark observed, watching her pull up the relevant data.
Lori didn't lift her eyes from her job. "Well," she said, "my vampire tap is actually a hacker's adaptation of some really old technology. Nobody expects to find it around anymore, so they don't have any guards against it. Nora--she was my friend in high school--and a couple of her hacker buddies revived the idea and modified it to handle modern computer cables. I never expected to actually use it myself."
"Do I want to know what they used it for?" Clark asked.
"No," Lori said. "Here we go..."
One after another, the security badges, each bearing one of the photos she had scanned into the computer a short time earlier, emerged from the printer's slot. "Got the plastic stuff?"
"Yes." Clark produced the little plastic slabs he had acquired from the Daily Planet's security office during his quick trip back to Metropolis. He placed the forged badges inside, and sealed the plastic edges with his heat vision. "There we go. Instant badges."
He waited while Lori disconnected her computer and the vampire clip, and pushed the cable back into the wall. The hole in the plaster gaped conspicuously at them, and Clark shoved a heavy file cabinet in front of it. "There. That should be safe for awhile. Now, if Ronnie will just show up--"
Rhonda Klein materialized beside them as if by magic. "The fire is out and people are going back to their offices. I hope you're finished."
"All done," Lori said, sounding, Clark thought, very pleased with herself. "You're Veronica Brown, I'm Lauren Jones, and Clark is Charles Warren."
Clark examined his badge, admitting to himself that it looked exactly like all the other ones he had ever seen. Lori might be an amateur, but she had done an excellent job.
"I'm just as happy you decided to be a reporter, rather than a forger," he said, drily. "You'd give the Metro police force a headache for certain."
She turned pink and gave a slightly embarrassed laugh. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. Now, let's get going," he said. We still have to find Mr. Gossett, and see what we can see."
Lori glanced warily at the two women passing in the hall, but neither looked at the three pseudo-employees who stood near the hall intersection, apparently engrossed in conversation.
"We've got fifteen minutes until closing," Clark said, glancing at the time display on his wrist talker. "I need to hear this guy speak."
"What's he doing?" Lori asked. She glanced at the door of Edwin Gossett's office, twenty feet away.
"The same thing he's been doing for the last ten minutes: staring at his computer screen."
Lori fidgeted. "If his phone would ring, we'd have it. Maybe one of us should call him."
"Wait," Clark said. "His phone is beeping. Shh."
Lori and Rhonda looked at each other. Clark's head was tilted in a pose Lori had seen before at the Planet, although she had not understood why. Rhonda's was tilted as well. The two superheroes were tuned into to Gossett's conversation in the other room. Lori tried to breathe quietly while they listened.
Suddenly, Clark relaxed. "It's him, all right," he said, ungrammatically. "It's the same voice I heard at the house, and later on the recording."
Lori released her breath. "What was the call about?"
"It was Blackwell," Clark said. "He was reporting that you and I seem to have disappeared. Gossett told them to keep looking. He wants to talk to you"
"They're still after us," Lori said. "Then, why did they kidnap Brad and his family?"
"I think," Clark said, "that they may be trying a new technique."
"A trade?" Lori asked.
"Sounds like it," Rhonda said. "Do they know Superman's involved, Clark?"
He shook his head. "Not that I'm aware. They know Superwoman rescued us the other day. And Ray told Gossett that the night before they'd tried to get to Lori, but there was always some super hero hanging around. They can't be sure, though."
"Those could have been flukes," Rhonda pointed out. She looked at Lori. "We might be able to use this to find your brother, if you're willing."
Clark said nothing, though Lori could read the reluctance on his features. He clearly didn't like the idea of putting her at any risk at all, but wasn't saying so.
"What are you thinking?" she asked.
"Using you as bait," Rhonda said, bluntly. "With a twist, of course. Clark and I would be right there to bail you out immediately if you ran into trouble."
"We can talk about it back at the motel," Clark said. "In the meantime, we've got an opportunity here. It's closing time in a few minutes, and Mr. Gossett's computer is in there. It may have information on it that we can use. Can you tap into it as easily as you did Security's?"
"Sure," Lori said. "If I'm not interrupted."
"I'll see that you aren't," Clark said. "Rhonda, when he leaves, I want you to follow him."
"No problem," Rhonda said. "In the meantime, let's get out of sight. He'll be coming out in a minute. We don't know if he's seen any pictures of you or Lori, but we shouldn't take the risk."
An hour later at the Tumbleweed Motel, Lori sat cross-legged on Clark's bed, the computer before her, while Clark paced.
"What's taking her so long?" Clark asked for the fourth time in as many minutes.
"Gossett's probably stuck in traffic," Lori said. "Clark, you're making me nervous."
"Sorry." He flopped into one of the room's armchairs, but within moments was drumming his fingers on the armrest. Lori glanced at him, then back at the computer.
"How are you doing?" Clark asked. "Did we get anything worthwhile?"
"Well, they've definitely got a second set of books," Lori said. "I took the opportunity to do some snooping around in the rest of their system while I had the chance. Here's the real list of their donations. Big chunks of money were given to Gaia over the last ten months."
"Let me see." Clark leaned over her shoulder. "Try matching it up with the ones you found in Gaia's records."
"Right here." Lori pulled up the requested file. "They match, all right," she said after a moment of comparisons. "I can't say I'm surprised at this point, but I still can't figure out why on Earth U&B Technologies would be helping Gaia destroy the colony project! I mean, it's obvious they're involved, but I can't see that a big corporation would have any interest in Gaia's ideology."
"Maybe there's another reason," Clark said. "They don't necessarily have to have anything in common."
"Except Edwin Gossett," Lori said. "What company got the Mayflower contract, anyway?"
"Oh, yeah." She bent over the computer again. "It doesn't seem to me that one company official could authorize all this, not even a senior vice president."
"I'm certain he couldn't," Clark said. "There's got to be something more behind it. Look around in there and see if they mention Lockmead."
"I am," she said, scanning the file as she spoke. "Here it is...huh! That's funny."
"Funny as in ha-ha, or funny as in strange?"
"Strange. They've got a ton of information on Lockmead--including a detailed list of it's shareholders, and personal information on them, right down to a little kid who got a share from his grandma when he was born. Why would they have something like that?"
"Let me see." He leaned over her shoulder again. For an instant, his cheek brushed hers, and she told herself to relax. Just because his face was that close to hers was no reason to go all to pieces.
"There's a lot of confidential stuff on Lockmead in here." Clark scowled at the information displayed.
"Could they be trying to sabotage Lockmead?" Lori asked. "That might be why they're helping Gaia. I mean, if something happened to the Mayflower with no evidence of sabotage, it couldn't do Lockmead any good, could it?"
"Definitely not," Clark said. He straightened up. "Lockmead is EPRAD's biggest contractor. If the Mayflower failed for any reason, unless it was proven sabotage, it would discredit the company, probably the stocks would plunge...it could virtually wipe them out. It could make some kind of corporate takeover awfully easy, and eliminate U&B's biggest competitor."
"But what's Gossett's role in all this?"
"That's what we still have to find out," Clark said. "It's really funny that he's involved with both Gaia and U&B. I wonder if his bosses know it?"
Lori stared at him for a moment. "You know, this is a really weird idea, but what if..." She broke off, frowning.
"It makes a crazy kind of sense," she said, speaking more to herself than to him. "What if U&B got conned, too?"
"Well, maybe you can find something wrong with it," she said. "But Gaia is desperate to stop the Mayflower, right?"
"Right. They believe it's the beginning of the end of the world."
"They couldn't possibly stop it on their own. They don't have the resources," Lori said. "Then, all of a sudden, a few months ago, U&B Technologies started giving them all this funding and help."
"What if Gossett came up with this scheme and convinced his bosses to go along with it, so they'd help Gaia?"
"In other words, Gaia could be using U&B Technologies to sabotage the project and 'save the world'."
"Yeah," Lori said. "That might explain why Gossett is in the middle of everything."
"It could," Clark said, thoughtfully. "Of course, they've been caught in unethical business practices a couple of times. If we're right about this, they're just as culpable as Gaia."
"I'll say," Lori said.
"Anyway," Clark said, "whichever way you look at it, Gossett is in it up to his hairline. If we can prove he was involved in kidnapping your brother's family, I think the authorities might be willing to listen to us and launch an investigation."
"I hope so," Lori said. "We've only got three weeks." She glanced out the window at the sky. The haze of city lights effectively hid the stars, but a crescent moon hung just above the eastern horizon.
A familiar whoosh alerted them to Rhonda's arrival, and Clark was opening the door before she had time to knock.
"Gee, were you expecting me or something?" she asked, grinning slightly.
"What took so long?" Clark asked.
"Ground traffic," Rhonda said. She stepped inside and closed the door. With a quick spin, she was in her civvies once more. "I left him sitting in his living room, drinking a beer and watching the news." She glanced significantly at the computer. "Find anything?"
"Some," Lori said. "After Clark got the password, there wasn't any problem downloading it, but there's a lot to wade through."
Rhonda nodded. "There'll be time for that later," she said. "I've been thinking. Whatever's in that safe box must be hot stuff. They're sure determined to get hold of your package, but I'm inclined to think it doesn't involve the Mayflower."
"Yeah," Lori said. "If Brad had any proof he'd have taken it to the authorities."
"I agree," Clark said. "I'm betting it's something personally incriminating to Mr. Gossett, since he's so determined to get it. Brad told you he hoped it would keep him out of trouble, didn't he?"
"It sounds to me as if he was trying to keep Gossett off his back. If Gossett knew he was looking for proof about U&B and Gaia--" Clark shrugged. "I think your brother was doing the best he could."
"Gossett probably gambled that the military would do exactly what they did when he disappeared," Rhonda said. "Deny that anything was wrong. You'll probably get a call before long, Lori, when they decide they can't find you physically, offering to trade Brad and his family for the evidence."
Lori swallowed and nodded. "You think they're still alive?" she asked.
Rhonda hesitated. "Probably," she said. "But you know Gossett has no intention of letting any of them, or you, live."
"I know," Lori said. She swallowed again. "You said you have an idea--using me for bait."
Rhonda nodded. "With a few safety precautions," she said, "such as the two of us hanging around close by."
Clark walked over and sat down on the bed beside Lori. "You don't have to do this," he pointed out. "We can think of something else."
"I know," Lori said. "But Ronnie's right. If we make the bait irresistible, they're more likely to walk into the trap."
Clark obviously didn't like where the discussion was going, but rather surprisingly said nothing.
"I also think," Rhonda said, "that the presence of a cop would add a certain something to the situation."
Clark raised an eyebrow at her. "You have a volunteer?" he inquired.
"You know I do," she said.
"How is Oliver these days?" Clark asked.
"He's doing fine," Rhonda said. She looked at Lori. "Oliver is an old friend of mine," she explained. "He's a police inspector at the 17th Precinct, and he owes me a number of favors."
"I take it you have a specific plan?" Clark asked.
"Of course," Rhonda said. "Lori has to make the first move, though."
"What do you want me to do?" Lori asked.
Rhonda glanced at Clark. "I like her," she said. "She's got guts."
"Too many," Clark murmured, but he didn't protest.
Rhonda smiled at Clark. "It's Karma, Clark, and you know you wouldn't have it any other way," she said.
Lori couldn't figure out what Rhonda meant, but Clark evidently understood, for he laughed softly and surrendered. "Okay, I give up, but we're going to stack the deck heavily in our favor," he said.
"Naturally," Rhonda said. "First, though, we're going to take Mr. Gossett off guard. Instead of waiting for him to call us, Lori's going to call him. I got his vid phone number."
Lori gulped and nodded. "Okay, but won't he worry about someone tapping into the call? I mean, I'd suspect that, in his place."
Rhonda shook her head. "He's an exec for a high-tech firm. They all have Spotters on their phones to let them know if a conversation is being monitored. You're going to set up a meeting. Now, here's what we'll do."
"Hello," Edwin Gossett's voice said. Lori thought she would have recognized it even if she hadn't known who the man on the other end was. "This is Gossett."
Lori glanced nervously at Clark, who was sitting on the bed, and Rhonda, who stood halfway across the room, both well outside the pick-up for the vid phone. Rhonda gave her a thumbs-up gesture.
"Mr. Gossett," Lori said, summoning a calm, confident tone; four years in her high school drama club hadn't been wasted time after all. "This is Lori Lyons. I understand you're looking for me."
The silence that followed her announcement almost had a surprised quality, as if the man at the other end hadn't expected this development. The vid screen came on suddenly, and Lori saw Edwin Gossett's face for the first time. He was a thin little man, with the beginnings of a receding hairline, and a voice totally at odds with his appearance. "Yes, Ms. Lyons, we have."
"That's a coincidence," Lori said, "because I'm looking for you. I believe I have something you want."
"And what would that be, Ms. Lyons?"
"You know what it is." she said. "You have something I want as well. If you can convince me it's in good condition, I might be persuaded to trade."
"I think I can convince you of that." The man turned his head to examine something out of range of the vid pickup. "Can you convince me that what I want is in equally desirable shape?"
"You'll have to examine it yourself," Lori said. "I haven't opened it."
"You expect me to believe you found me on your own?" Gossett's eyebrows slid up incredulously, and in his voice was as close to a sneer as Lori had ever heard.
"I don't expect anything," Lori said. "I want my brother and his family back, and I know you have them. I know about your connection to Gaia's Children, and U&B Technology's covert donations to them. I also know about the plan to destroy the Mayflower, and a lot of other things as well. Now, do we deal, or do I take my information to the police?"
"Don't get snippy with me, young lady! You will speak to me with respect!"
Out of the corner of her eye, Lori caught a look at Clark's raised eyebrows and had to struggle to maintain a straight face, even over the anger that was seeping through her. The man definitely had a sense of his own importance. A potential weak spot.
"That's rich," she said, contemptuously. "A common kidnapper demanding respect. I called you first because I love my brother and his family, Gossett. You've got ten seconds; then I'm going to assume they're already dead and take what I know to the police."
Silence. Lori counted silently. "Okay, your choice."
"Wait!" Gossett said. "All right. Where are you?"
"I'm in Houston. That's all you need to know."
"Can we meet?"
"Only to trade," Lori said. "I have no more reason to trust you than you have to trust me. The package and my evidence, unduplicated, in exchange for my brother and his family. That's the deal. You can bring a technician along to verify that they haven't been duplicated."
"Hmmmph. You don't mince words, do you, young woman?"
"Not with you," Lori said, looking him straight in the eyes, and she could hear the anger coloring her own words. That should help to convince him that what she was saying was genuine. "Your people kidnapped me. If it hadn't been for Superwoman, Mr. Kent and I would be dead, so no, I don't mince words. Call me back when you have proof that my brother and his family are all right. We'll make the arrangements then. I'm transmitting a call-back authorization, now."
"Very well. I'll call you back with the meeting place."
She shut off the vid phone, and drew a deep breath.
"Brava!" Rhonda applauded. "Great performance!"
Clark nodded respectfully. "That was a very convincing act, Lori. I think he believed you."
"I hope so," Lori said. "I guess it helped that he made me angry."
"It's hard to be nervous when you're mad," Rhonda agreed. "I'll call Oliver back now. He's got the stuff we need."
It was an hour later that the vid phone beeped. When she answered, Gossett's voice emerged from the speaker.
"Ms. Lyons," he began, "I have someone who wishes to speak to you."
"Yes?" Lori said.
The vid screen came on. Brad's face appeared in the pickup.
Her brother looked somewhat the worse for wear. He had a bruise under one eye, another on his jaw, and a cut on his forehead. His expression was grim. "Lori?" he said.
"Brad! Are you and Sharon and the kids all right?"
"We haven't been hurt. Lori, you can't--"
A hand jerked him roughly out of the vid pickup. "Are you satisfied, Ms. Lyons?" Gossett asked.
"For now," Lori said. "If I don't see all four of them alive at the exchange point, you don't get your package. Do you understand?"
"That's understood. We will meet in half an hour in the new children's park on Porcupine Avenue. Do you know where that is?"
"I'll find it," Lori said.
"Excellent. There's a statue honoring Ultra Woman near the eastern border of the park."
Lori switched off the vid phone and looked at her companions. "Well, it's set."
Clark nodded. "You realize that he has no intention of carrying through, don't you? He was lying through his teeth. He can't afford for your brother to go back and tell his story to the authorities. They'd investigate, proof or no proof, after this."
"I know," Lori said.
Rhonda nodded. "Of course he was, but it's the only way we're going to find them while they're still alive." She glanced at the time display on her wrist talker. "We have thirty minutes." She looked Lori over carefully. "Make sure that thing is turned off," she said. "They're bound to check you for a transmitter."
"It's off," Lori said. "Just try not to lose me, okay?"
"We'll definitely try." Clark's voice sounded grimmer than she thought he intended. "The thing is, these people have some pretty high tech gadgets at their beck and call. We want to be ready for any eventuality."
"Exactly," Rhonda said. She glanced at the time display on her wrist talker. "I better get going. Oliver and I have a few things to arrange."
"We'll see you at the rendezvous," Clark said.
When Rhonda had gone, Clark turned to Lori where she sat on the bed. "Lori, I still don't like this. Whatever way you stack it, it's still a risk."
"I know," she said. "It's a lot more risk than I want to take, believe me. But it's the only way we have to save Brad and the others, and the colony project. They'll never halt the launch just on someone's say so--not even Superman's. We need proof."
He sat down next to her. "I know. I'm not trying to argue with you. I learned not to do that...well, a while back."
"Oh." Lori was silent, trying to read the look on his face.
Clark took one of her hands gently in his and held it, brushing a thumb across the back. "Do you know," he said abruptly, "what you've done to my life, Lori Lyons?"
She didn't answer for a moment, then shook her head.
"I figured you didn't," he said. "One moment I knew exactly what I'd be doing the next day, the next week...and the next minute I heard you being mugged down there on the campus. I came down to help, and grabbed that guy...and then I saw you, and my whole world turned upside down."
"It did?" she whispered.
"Yeah. It happens to Kryptonians that way--in a split second. After that, things are never the same." He released her hand and stood up, beginning to pace. "There's a lot you don't know about me. But--after this is over...I'd like to try...well, being friends, maybe a date, if you're not against it. And, well, if things work out..."
"I'd like that very much," Lori said.
He stopped pacing and turned to look at her again. "Thank you," he said.
"Just thank you." He glanced at his wrist. "We better get going."
Flying through the faintly warm air of late evening, Lori found her mind reeling at what had just occurred. Clark...Superman...had all but told her he'd fallen in love with her. It was a heady sensation, and a little scary, but sneaking a glance at his face in the darkness, she had a feeling she hadn't known since that last Christmas Eve when she still believed in Santa Claus--the breathless knowledge that something magical and mysterious was about to happen. When she looked back at him again, he smiled at her, and Lori felt her heart do a little skip.
Then they were over the park and Clark was bringing them down silently in the shadows, a short distance from the appointed meeting place. It was a little past nine-thirty; Lori would have expected the park to be deserted, but it wasn't. The baseball field some three hundred feet away was lighted, and there was a game going on between casually clad men and women. Here and there, in the dimness of the spreading lawn, couples sat on benches and spread-out blankets, children played hide and seek among the trees, and toward Porcupine Avenue, there was some kind of rally taking place in a lighted grassy area of the park. Lori glanced apprehensively at Clark.
He had spun into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and in the shadow he loomed over her, solid and reassuring.
"Ready?" he asked softly. She nodded, hoping he could see more than she did. Could Superman see in the dark? she wondered. He could see through walls, she knew; his night sight was almost certainly sharper than hers. And where was Rhonda and her friend Oliver, the police inspector? They must be out here somewhere.
Clark rested a hand lightly on her shoulder. "Be careful," he said.
He squeezed her shoulder lightly. "Okay, go."
She glanced at the glowing readout on her wrist talker; two minutes. She began to walk toward the larger than life-size statue that stood black against the sky, looking around for the other persons who were supposed to be here. Clark stood back, but the knowledge that he was there in the darkness behind her gave her more confidence than she might otherwise have had.
A nite-glo frisbee sailed past her and a young man plunged after it across her path. Lori flinched slightly as he came within inches of her in his rush for the spinning disk. Then she was directly beneath the statue.
The baseball game was letting out, and the players and spectators were dashing exuberantly across the park grounds, their shouts ringing through the night air of the park.
Time. She looked around. There was no sign of Brad or his family, no sign of anyone waiting for her, but figures were streaming past her, and chattering people surrounded her on all sides.
Members of the rally were suddenly present as well, men and women milling about with their signs under the statue of Ultra Woman. People were converging on the statue from all directions, and Lori felt herself being squashed from all sides as bodies hemmed her in. It wasn't even a surprise when she heard the explosion. A building across Porcupine Avenue erupted in flames, and a moment later a second followed it. Debris rained on the park, followed by choking fumes. People screamed, and the panicking crowd began to run in all directions. A hand pinned her wrists behind her, and an evil-smelling rag was clapped hard over her mouth. She tried to wrench free, but she had already gotten a lung full of the acrid substance that saturated the cloth. She felt herself being dragged across the grass, surrounded by the loud and frantic crowd of humanity, and after that, there was nothing.
Lori stirred feebly and tried to fight the waves of nausea that brought the taste of bile to her mouth. There were voices in the background, but she paid no attention to them. Gradually, after eons of time, the nausea retreated to bearable levels.
Something nudged her ungently in the back. Lori opened her eyes.
She was lying on a concrete floor, and from across the room two men she had never seen before in her life were watching her without interest. Another wave of nausea swept over her and she squeezed her eyes shut again. Then, a voice she found unpleasantly familiar said, "I thought you were coming around. Look at me, Ms. Lyons."
Slowly and painfully, Lori obeyed.
Edwin Gossett was looming over her, and the look on his face was a combination of satisfaction and annoyance.
"Well, Ms. Lyons," he said, "perhaps you'll have more respect for me now. Sit up."
Lori closed her eyes for a moment. "Would you lower your voice, please?" she requested.
Gossett's hand seized her arm and jerked her to a sitting position. The jolt of suddenly coming upright unbalanced the precarious control she had gained over her unruly stomach, and she began to gag. Gossett moved quickly back out of range.
When her stomach's revolt had ceased, he spoke again. "Ms. Lyons, I haven't a great deal of patience with fools who don't know their place." His voice, harsh with its nasal twang, grated on her ears. "You were to bring the package and documents. You don't have them."
Lori opened her eyes to glare up at him with weary misery. "Of course not. Do I look like a complete idiot? If you'd played straight with me, you'd have them by now."
"Frankly," Gossett said, "I didn't think you'd have the courage to show up, much less the wit to--what is the gambling term--'hedge your bets' so cleverly. I admit, I underestimated you. Now, where are the package and the other documents?"
She mustn't show fear, Lori told herself. If Gossett thought she was afraid of him, she would lose a little of her edge. "My partner has them," she said.
"Ah, the estimable Mr. Kent; how could I have forgotten him," Gossett said, a note of sarcasm in his voice.
"You shouldn't," Lori said. Slowly, she pulled her feet under her and stood up, one hand on the wall for support. "What's the time?"
Gossett glanced at his wrist talker. "Ten thirty-three," he said, with exaggerated courtesy. "Do you have a prior engagement?"
"No. But if I don't show up by eleven, Clark will take the package and all the other evidence we've found to the police."
"That would be very unfortunate for you, Ms. Lyons."
"Why?" Lori said, bluntly. "You have no intention of letting any of us go, so why would it matter? How do I know they're still alive even now?"
Gossett eyed her thoughtfully. "There are many kinds of death. I can make yours easy, or very, very difficult. I must admit, the second option holds a certain attraction." He held up a small object. "We found your transmitter, by the way. Disguised as a class ring--very clever. Now, I want you to call your partner."
Lori had been aware of her missing wrist talker and the other items as well, so she showed no emotion at the revelation. "Not until I see that Brad and the others are still alive."
"Don't get above yourself, young woman. You are in no position to bargain."
Lori looked back at him without expression. It was amazing, she thought, where this calm came from. Faced with a critical situation, she was in control and thinking clearly. Her heart was racing, light and fast, and her breathing had quickened. Fight or flight. If she got out of this mess alive, she would no doubt go to pieces, but for now, she knew exactly what to do. The first thing was to assure herself of the location of Brad and his family. "Where are they? Are they still alive, or did you lie about that, too?"
Gossett slapped her hard, knocking her sideways into the wall. Lori saw stars and felt her knees give way. For a moment, the room's lights dimmed out around her.
As her surroundings swam slowly back into focus, she could hear the blood singing in her ears, and tasted it in her mouth. Through a grey haze, Gossett was smiling at her.
With one hand, he yanked her roughly back to her feet. "I want that package, girl! You will call Kent and tell him to bring it--"
Lori spat at him. It wasn't a conscious action; more instinct than anything else. Gossett started back with a cry of disgust on his lips. Quickly, he removed a handkerchief from a pocket and wiped the blood and saliva from his face. Lori fell back against the wall, fighting dizziness. With one hand, she wiped blood from her chin. Her lip was cut, her jaw hurt, and when she felt with her tongue, she realized one tooth was slightly loose as well.
Gossett seized her by the blouse and pulled her close to his face. "Call him!"
Lori drew a shaking breath, her mind still fixed doggedly on her goal. Her eyes wouldn't quite focus. "Not until I see Brad and his family." Her voice shook. "Your time's counting, Gossett."
Gossett pushed her back against the wall. "All right." Perhaps, Lori thought, dazed at his sudden capitulation, he believed it would make no difference. He gestured to one of the two muscular individuals silently watching the scene. The man turned, opened a door, and left the room. Lori wiped more blood from her mouth.
"Where are we?" she asked.
"In a secret location," Gossett said. "You can scream to your heart's content. No one will hear you."
The door through which Gossett's lackey had vanished opened again, and Brad, Sharon and the two children were herded into the room. The guard entered behind them and closed the door.
"Lori!" Brad started toward her, only to be pushed ungently back by the two men.
Lori looked at her brother. Brad had been subjected to rough treatment since she had seen him on the vid phone screen, a couple of hours before. His face had acquired more bruises and cuts, and Sharon had a black eye as well. The children, hiding behind their mother, appeared to be unhurt. Judging by the treatment she had received from Gossett in the last few minutes, Lori thought she could guess where the marks had come from.
"Now," Gossett said, bringing her back to the present. "You will make the call."
Lori nodded wordlessly and let him shove her roughly in the direction of a second door, in the wall on her left. Once through it, a steep flight of steps led upward. Lori grasped the railing, unwilling to trust her balance on the stairs. Gossett pushed her forward sharply with a blow from his open hand between her shoulder blades.
Lori gritted her teeth and set one foot on the stairs, then another and hauled herself upward, Gossett dogging her steps. Blood from her cut lip dripped on her blouse. Halfway up, she stopped to rest.
"Go on!" Gossett demanded. Lori wiped away a runnel of blood and sat down.
"I need to rest. Unless you want to carry me." Again, she scrubbed away a trickle of blood and wiped her hand across the front of her blouse.
"Get up!" Gossett snarled. "Now!"
Wearily, Lori pulled herself to her feet. Ten steps more. Slowly, she ascended the stairs, Gossett on her heels. The door at the top was locked, and the man behind her reached past her to unlock it. He pushed it open, and Lori found herself in a kitchen.
"There." He indicated the vid phone on the opposite wall.
Lori started for it; the scene was shimmering around the edges of her vision. Clark hadn't come; Gaia's Children had managed somehow to prevent him from tracing her to the hideout, but she was out of the basement, away from any possible shielding. Now was the time to use what Rhonda had given her. There wouldn't be another chance.
With a shaking hand, she wiped away the lessening trickle of blood, and scrubbed her reddened fingers across the front of her blouse. As she did so, she caught the third button down, the inactivated switch to the hypersonic signal that no one but the local dogs and the superheroes could hear, and pulled it free.
Outside, a dog howled, and a split second later the howl was joined by a chorus, as canines near and far picked up the sound. Gossett was no fool; in an instant, the man realized what she had done and his fist lashed out. Lori flung up her arms to protect her face with a muffled cry of protest. But the cry was drowned out in the double smash of glass as two bodies hurtled through the kitchen windows. Gossett's fist never reached its target, for an angry figure in red and blue sent him flying across the kitchen to crash headfirst into the stasis unit.
"Downstairs--" Lori began in a hoarse whisper.
"Stay here," Clark's voice said. Lori found herself reclining on a sofa, not even aware of how she had gotten there, while somewhere below her, muted crashes, thumps and alarmed cries told her that Clark and Rhonda were cleaning house.
"Lori?" Clark's voice seemed to be coming from a great distance. "Wake up. You mustn't go to sleep."
Her eyelids felt as if they were being pulled down with lead weights, but Lori forced them up, to find Clark's worried face close above hers.
"Clark?" she asked.
"The police are here, Lori." He glanced over his shoulder and back at her. "I'm going to fly you to the hospital in a few minutes. Try to stay awake."
She was careful not to move her head. "Is Brad all right?" Her lips were stiff and didn't want to cooperate.
Clark was holding a linen napkin he had obtained from somewhere, and now he gently pressed it to her lip. "Don't try to talk, Lori. You'll make your mouth bleed. Brad is all right. They're all all right, thanks to you." He turned his head. "Inspector Brent?"
A tall, slender man with dark brown hair moved into Lori's range of vision. "Superman. How is she?"
"I need to get her to the hospital. Do you think you can postpone the questions for later?"
The Inspector nodded. "No problem. Just explain to me how I always let myself get talked into these incredible situations."
"She does the same to me," Clark said, drily. "No willpower, that's all."
Lori blinked at the man. Maybe it was her blurry vision, but Inspector Brent had the same eyes as Clark and Rhonda. "Oliver?" she murmured.
"That's right," he said. "Superman is going to take you to the emergency room, Ms. Lyons. We'll talk later."
"All right," Lori said. She closed her eyes as Clark lifted her in his arms, and a moment later they were airborne. She put her head down on his shoulder and drifted off. It was over, at least for now.
"I really wish you'd stay tonight for observation," Clark said. He held Lori's arm as they exited the Emergency Room some five hours later. The ramp leading down to the stationary walk seemed more desirable than the stairs, especially since she had reluctantly admitted to some residual dizziness from her confrontation with Edwin Gossett.
"Clark, I'm fine." Lori's speech was a bit slurred as she spoke through swollen lips and a stiff, bruised jaw, as well as the fact that she had been warned not to stretch the newly sealed tissue of her lip when she spoke. "Why should I sleep in a noisy hospital, when I've got a perfectly good motel room, with a lot more privacy? I don't want anyone to see me looking like this."
"Like what?" Clark asked, genuinely puzzled.
"Like this--with a swollen lip and jaw, a black eye, and a big, nasty bruise on my chin. I look like I've been in the middle of a barroom brawl!"
"Lori." Clark stopped and turned to face her, placing both hands on her shoulders. "You're beautiful. You could never be anything else. A few cuts and bruises don't matter."
His pronouncement seemed to shock her into silence. Clark pressed his advantage. "Since we're going back to the motel, don't think for a moment that I'm going to leave you by yourself tonight. Someone has to be sure you can be waked up." He smiled at her surprised expression. "I'll behave myself, I promise, but we're not going to argue about it. Even if I have to sleep, floating."
She gave a one-sided smile, careful not to disturb the doctor's repairs. "I trust you."
"Good. Besides, tomorrow you and I have an invitation from your brother. I think he wants to spend some time with you, and be sure you're all right. He's going to give me an exclusive interview, too. He was too busy talking to the authorities tonight; they wouldn't let him have the time to come over to the hospital to see you, but he asked me to let you know what was happening."
"I figured it was something like that," Lori said. "At least I'll be able to ask him what's in that darned safe box."
Clark chuckled. "I asked him."
"What was it?"
"Pretty much what we thought--incriminating evidence against Gossett, but nothing to do with the Mayflower. Brad promised to tell us all about it tomorrow." He glanced at his wrist talker. "This afternoon, actually."
"Yeah. The sun will be up in a couple of hours." She glanced down at her wrist talker, which Clark had retrieved for her. The movement was apparently a little too quick, for she staggered slightly and clutched at his arm for balance.
Clark put an arm around her. "Easy there. There's no rush. I told Brad we'd be at their place after one. You can get in a good eight hours of rest."
"As if I'll be able to. I'm dying to hear the whole story."
Clark laughed softly. Maybe patience wasn't always one of Lori's strong points after all. "Actually, I overheard part of what Brad was telling the security people who were interviewing him. Do you think you could sleep if I give you some of the background now, and let him fill in the details later?"
He could see her eyes brighten at the prospect. "I think it would sure help!"
"Okay, then." He resumed his careful escort of her along the stationary sidewalk, headed for a concealed area of the hospital grounds. "I have to hand it to Brad. He's got a lot of courage. Apparently, Gossett's confidential secretary came to him with the information about what they were up to, but she didn't have any proof."
"Yeah. She'd known about his less-than-ethical business dealings for years, and never said anything, but this time was a bit different. Her grand-daughter is a colonist on the Mayflower."
"I guess that would make a difference," Lori said, thoughtfully.
"I guess so. Anyway, she was scared to death. She couldn't get any evidence to prove it, but she brought your brother information about some of the other criminal dealings Gossett had been involved in over the years, just to prove what kind of solid citizen he was. She was found dead in her home three days later, but with no evidence of foul play. That's when Brad started doing some investigating on his own, and before long that brought him to Gossett's attention. The rest, we pretty much know. I gave the investigators everything we had, too, by the way. It's already getting results."
"What happened?" Lori asked.
"Well, an hour ago, government agents swooped down on U&B Technologies and Gaia without any warning and confiscated their computers as well as a bunch of high tech gadgetry that they had no business having in their possession, and arrested a lot of high officials from both organizations. The last I heard, U&B executives were trying to explain the transfer of restricted technology to Gaia, and Gaia leaders were trying to explain the presence of schematics for a highly classified tactical weapons system in their computer--as well as their possession of a working model. It looks as if there are a lot of people in very hot water."
"How do you know that?"
Clark tapped his ear.
"And we've been promised the exclusive when the investigation is complete, since we were instrumental in the discovery of the evidence. The part we already know about is on John's desk under the Kent and Lyons byline." He stepped off the sidewalk, and drew her around the corner into the shadows. A quick spin, and Superman picked her up with great care for her bruises and sore spots. "Congratulations on your first major scoop, Ms. Lyons."
"Thanks." Lori relaxed in his arms, as he lifted off without a jar. They glided silently up and over the city. Her face was close to his, and he could feel her breath warm on his cheek.
"You're welcome." His voice was soft. "Lori, I'm so sorry I couldn't get to you sooner. When I saw what he'd done to you...well, Superman came awfully close to forgetting his ethics."
"You wouldn't do that. That's not the sort of guy you are." She put a hand on his cheek. "You mustn't blame yourself. Gossett enjoyed hitting me--that's the kind of person he is. I could tell."
"I know," Clark said. "Oliver told me the guy has a record of violence, including spousal abuse. He's been arrested twice for it, but the cases were plea-bargained down to misdemeanors. I don't think he's going to wiggle out of federal charges so easily, though."
"I hope not."
"He won't." Clark tightened his arms around her very slightly, holding her warmly. "Lori--"
"Gossett nearly took you away from me forever," he said, quietly. "It scared me more than anything has in a long time. I don't want to lose you...ever. Whether it's just as a friend, or as something more someday, I want you around. Can you believe that?"
"Yes," she said. "I think I do. I feel the same."
They flew in companionable silence through the night air toward the Tumbleweed Motel. Things had a long way to go, Clark knew. There was the matter of his age to be resolved, and exactly the kind of relationship they could have was still to be determined, but as he held her securely in his arms, he remembered what he had told Lois, all those years ago.
It wasn't the years that mattered, it was the moments as they lived them. And for right now, for this moment, he was happy.
To be continued, in the next story.