By Phil Atcliffe <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Original Air Date: September 5, 1999
Summary: Lane, Kent and the police are getting ever closer, but will someone else destroy the head of LexCorp before the case can be put together? Series finale, part 2 of 3. Episode 13 of S6.
PREVIOUSLY ON "LOIS & CLARK, SEASON 6":
"Someone is going to *answer* for this!" growled Lex Luthor, pounding his fist on the board-room table for emphasis. "LexCorp is under *attack!*"
"What it comes down to is that there is no doubt now that there never *was* a clone. Luthor's story of being kidnapped and replaced by his own clone not long after he proposed to you, and being imprisoned for almost three years, is just that — a story.
"The Lex Luthor living in the LexCorp Building penthouse is the same man who was there five years ago, and who tried to kill me and marry you, who committed suicide by jumping off that building, who was resurrected by Gretchen Kelly, who went to prison, who kidnapped you from our first wedding … and who knows that I'm Superman."
'At last!' he thought, exultant. 'Mr Kent, your Nemesis awaits you.' Or, rather, it *would*, once he, Lex Luthor, decided exactly where and when his enemy would meet his ultimate, inescapable fate.
The Inspector drew Clark over to one side and muttered quietly, "Do me a favour, Kent — keep your eye on that wife of yours. I don't know whether she realises it, but she is the key to this whole clone-impersonation thing. Lane is the *only* witness who can say that the hair in that locket came from the so-called clone's head."
"Remember Enrico O'Reilly?
"Someone in the prison hospital slipped him a Mickey, and he's confessed to almost all those murders, and he says they were all done on Luthor's orders."
A stream of incomprehensible text began to flow across the screen … until it blanked itself, leaving only the cryptic message:
REMOTE NODES READY. Program downloaded to 15 locations. First phase scheduled for SINGAPORE. Exchange opens in 05:38:27
As Nick watched, the 15 locations became 16, and the "27" became "26", and then "25" … and then the message disappeared and the screen resumed its usual appearance. "Geez, Alex, what is this? A countdown?"
"You better believe it. The countdown to Armageddon for LexCorp, courtesy of you and me and world-wide capitalism. And the clock is ticking … "
A few rooms away, a trembling Beth Luthor struggled to control the panic that threatened to overwhelm her.
'I've got to get out of here! But where can I go?' Where *could* the wife of Lex Luthor go? Where was a hiding place remote enough, secure enough to protect her from the power and fury of an angry Lex? She wasn't sure there *was* such a place.
"Several LexCorp subsidiaries have been undertaking extremely large transactions on exchanges all over the world, and, without exception, these transactions have resulted in heavy losses — *very* heavy losses!"
There was a pause, which stretched on and on. Finally, Van Allen, who had been silent ever since entering the office, could bear it no longer. "Sir, the accumulated debts total … total … "
The banker seemed unable to get the words out, until Luthor glared at him. " … over *ten billion dollars!* Sir, LexCorp is *bankrupt!*"
AND NOW, TO CONTINUE:
Rebecca Stafford winced at the outraged roar coming from her employer's office/study. Her concern was not so much for what it said as that it had been uttered at all. It was her job to act as intermediary between the outside world and Mr Luthor, to organise and control who and what he saw so that he could concentrate on running LexCorp, and, conscientious person that she was, she couldn't help feeling that she had failed miserably in the last few minutes. First Mr Van Allen had arrived without any warning, much less an appointment, and with two government officials; then they had barged in on Mr Luthor without even giving her a chance to check if he was able to see them at the moment; and now, whatever their business was with him, it had infuriated him to the point of shouting so loud that not even the expensive sound-proofing of his office could cope. This was not good.
Fortunately for her peace of mind, the roar was not repeated. However, the silence that followed for the next hour or so was quite nerve-wracking enough. Even though she didn't expect to hear anything from within the office, she couldn't help feeling more and more tense as the minutes ticked by; whatever was going on in there must be incredibly important to take up Mr Luthor's time this way.
Rebecca tried to think if there was anything that she ought to do — but what? If this was an ordinary business meeting, she'd know what to do, but this … well, she didn't have any real idea of *what* it was. If Mr Luthor's reaction was any guide, this … situation had all the earmarks of a major corporate emergency, which meant that he was unlikely to want to be disturbed for *anything* — she hoped.
What worried her was that she had always tried to anticipate Mr Luthor's needs, but right now, she had no idea what they were. And *that* was potentially dangerous. Rebecca loved her job, but she was well aware that keeping it depended on being the best, on doing exactly what her boss wanted her to do, preferably before he had to ask; only now, she was at a loss to know what that might be.
And Mr Luthor was not tolerant of failure.
Her musings were brought to an abrupt end as the intercom buzzed. "Miss Stafford, Mr O'Toole and Mr Rogers are leaving. Please show them out."
Rebecca's reply was unusually diffident for her, but Mr Luthor didn't seem to notice. Nor, once she returned, did he seem to hold her responsible for any dereliction of duty — he was too busy issuing orders.
"Tell the Directors of Accounting and Legal that I want them here immediately. Warn Security, IT and Public Relations that they are to be prepared to drop *everything* at a moment's notice; all routine work is to be delegated to whomever they consider appropriate. I want them on stand-by for extra-ordinary measures as of right now; I'll brief them later this evening. And, I'm afraid, Miss Stafford, that I will require you to be available on a 24-hour basis for the foreseeable future; call the Lexor and have the Presidential Suite reserved for your use for at least the next week — when I need you, I shall need you with a minimum of delay. Oh, and tell my wife that I don't know what time I'll be free tonight — if at all."
A relieved Rebecca flew to do her employer's bidding, which she carried out with her customary efficiency and despatch. There was one exception, though; she was unable to get in touch with Mrs Luthor. That was not particularly unusual, so she left a message on Beth's personal answering machine and voice mail, and had her paged; one way or another, the boss' message should get through.
The phone rang.
Alex Trifyllis, sitting at his computer, whirled around to stare at it in shocked amazement. His brother Nick appeared at the doorway, a matching look of horrified consternation on his face. For a moment, the two men exchanged worried glances before Nick finally broke the uneasy silence:
"Who the hell can *that* be?"
"Beats me, Nicky. Who's got this number? Nobody can trace it not after I set up the call-back scrambler virus. Anybody who tries anything like that even last number redial is gonna find themselves connected to a pizza joint in Seattle! Or maybe a used car lot in Hoboken … Not *here*, anyway. And the number's unlisted even the phone company doesn't know about it so we shouldn't have to worry about telemarketing or junk like that."
Alex paused for a moment, and then brightened. "Oh, of course! Either this is a fluke, the wrongest wrong number ever, or … "
"Or someone's found us? Kristos, Alex, what do we do?"
"Hold it, Nicky, hold it. I was gonna say, *or* it must be the one person besides us who knows the number."
"Yep. Remember, we arranged it so that she could call us *once* if she needed to. And since LexCorp oughtta be on its last legs by now, maybe she wants to get out from under before the final crash. Only one way to find out … "
Alex reached out and lifted the handset. Nick watched, marvelling that his brother could be so matter of fact, so cool about something that was, potentially at least, incredibly dangerous. Alex might be certain that his program had destroyed LexCorp, but Nick didn't think that Luthor would go down without a fight. And if he'd *found* them …
Alex wasn't as calm as he appeared; however, he had confidence in the safeguards that he'd set up, and in the emergency measures that he'd prepared in case he and Nick had to disappear in a hurry *again*. It had been fun setting up new identities for them to step into, and it was a real kick to be imitating the hero of one of his favourite books John Brunner's "The Shockwave Rider", a prophetic novel of the computer age, albeit an age which had arrived several decades before the author had predicted.
The new IDs, complete with past histories and documentation, were all set; all that remained was to activate them and step into their new lives. The single weakness in this plan was the need to get away from their present location, to disappear so that they could re appear as their new selves. Alex had set up a variety of traps and warning systems which *should* give the brothers the time to get out if too much attention (*anyone's* attention, and especially anyone connected with LexCorp) came their way, but there was no way to test that. So this phone call could represent a real danger, or maybe not; as he'd told Nick, there was only one way to find out.
"Oh, thank God! I was afraid that you weren't there!" came a panicky female voice. "Alex is that Alex?"
"Yeah, it is. Hang on a second, Mrs Luthor, while I switch to conference." He put down the phone and went over to the computer, where he quickly called up a program and set it to work. After a few seconds, a window opened on the screen; Alex read what it said, then went back to the phone and hit the conference switch, waving Nick to come over as well.
"Okay, Mrs Luthor. Sorry about keeping you waiting, but I had to fix something. What's the problem?" That there was a problem was simply assumed; when Beth had recruited the Trifyllises, they had agreed not to contact each other except in an emergency, and from the sound of Beth's voice, this was an emergency to her, anyway.
By now, Beth had regained some self control but not too much. "The problem, Alex, is Owen Preece your brother Chris' old boss. I tried to get him to help me, the way that you are, and I warned him that Lex was going to have him killed *and* framed for Chris' murder. He wouldn't help; instead, he embezzled $300,000 and ran. But now Lex has found him, and he knows that he was warned; he doesn't know who warned Preece, or what they warned him of, but it won't take him long to find out, now that the man is in custody.
"So it's my turn to run. Once Lex gets to Preece, it'll all come out, and that'll be the end of me and you, too. My *our* only hope is the new identity that you said you could arrange, Alex. I don't know how close you are to any sort of large scale attack on LexCorp, but this is more important; you *have* to help me. If you don't, Lex will kill us all!"
Beth's voice had begun to rise, both in pitch and in volume, as she spoke, but she was also obviously trying to keep her voice down, presumably to avoid attracting attention, and the result was a peculiar sort of strangled, half shrieking whisper. It would have been funny, had not the information that it had imparted been so important.
"Okay, Mrs Luthor, I get the idea. Try to calm down, okay? Are you calling from a public phone?" Alex already knew the answer to that, but he wanted to get Beth to think about something else, however trivial, so as to break what sounded to him like building hysteria.
It worked. "No," replied a bewildered Beth. "No why?"
"'Cause I'm gonna put you on hold for a bit, that's all. Don't go away, and I'll be back in a couple of minutes." Before Beth could reply, he hit the privacy switch and turned to Nick. "Okay, Nicky, what do we do?"
Nick looked horrified. "Are you kidding, Alex? We gotta help her " And then the penny dropped, and his face changed from horror to fear … "Uh, that is, if we can believe her … ?"
Alex sighed in relief; after his usual knee-jerk, we-gotta-help reaction, Nick was really thinking about this — and he had to, because *he* was the one who knew people. Better than Alex did, anyway; Alex could make a computer sit up and beg if there was a reason for one to do so, but people weren't as obliging as electronics. Fortunately, he could give Nick some information to help him— them *both* decide.
"I dunno whether to believe her or not, Nicky, but I do know " He pointed to the computer screen. " that she's calling from a motel near the airport "
"What? You mean *here?*" Nick yelped.
"Yeah it's one of those overnight places for business types who fly in one day and fly out the next. The line's not tapped, and she's not using conference mode like we are, so the only way someone else is gonna know what we say is either by listening real close and I'm not picking up anyone breathing close to the phone or if she tells them. So, do we trust her?"
Nick sat back and looked at the ceiling, thoughtful. After a longish silence, he finally faced his brother again and said carefully, "I think we have to, Alex. We've got no reason to think that she's not telling the truth. Sure, she's scared witless, but I can understand that she's Luthor's *wife*, for cryin' out loud! She doesn't seem to know about your program, which makes me think that she's been out of touch for a couple of days. And on top of all that, she's here, in this city. If Luthor knew where we were, he wouldn't waste time calling us; we'd have had a couple of LexCorp goons like O'Reilly or Barrows charging in here to grab us!
"No, it sounds to me like she's on the up and up. We know that Luthor put that Barrows woman onto finding Preece; I guess she found him … "
"Yeah … " Alex replied, thinking hard himself. "Maybe we should have kept an eye on the Daily Planet after we told those reporters about the two of them." He waved a hand dismissively. "Ah, it doesn't matter. The question is, what are we gonna do with Mrs Luthor?"
"Well, one thing's for certain — we don't bring her *here!* She doesn't know where we are, and I'd like to keep it that way."
A surprised Alex stared at his brother. He agreed with Nick, but it was unusual to hear this coming from him. Nick was a bit of a worry-wart, but he'd had always been far too trusting, even as a kid — which was how Alex had dragged him into so much trouble over the years. Once they were *in* trouble, though, Alex had always been the cautious one and Nick the one who wanted to own up and face the music. But not now. 'I guess he's learned something from the last few weeks,' Alex mused. 'We ain't paranoid — there really *are* people out to get us!'
Meantime, Nick was still talking — or maybe it was thinking out loud. " … so the best thing, I think, would be if she stayed where she is while you do whatever you have to, to get that new ID ready for her. That way, if this *is* a set-up, they still won't know where you're operating from, and you can get *our* escape route ready at the same time.
"The risky part is gonna be keeping in touch and passing on all the information to her … but I think I know how to handle it. Listen, Alex, what do you think of this?"
Nick explained his idea, and Alex readily agreed, pleasantly surprised at his brother's forethought. 'He's really getting into the spirit of things … '
They turned off the privacy switch and pacified a worried Beth, whose imagination was running riot over being "cut off" for what seemed to her to be a horribly long period. Once she was calm again, Nick began to explain:
"What we want you to do, Mrs Luthor, is to stay put for a couple of days while we fix everything. Keep as low a profile as you can: eat in your room, don't go out unless you have to — that sort of thing.
"Now, you won't be able to use this number again, because it won't exist after we hang up, but don't worry: *we'll* keep in touch with *you.* We'll call you twice a day, just to check that everything's okay, between 9 and 10 o'clock, both a.m. and p.m., and we'll arrange to meet somewhere once everything's ready. It won't take more than two or three days, so stay cool and you'll soon be out of here."
After reassuring the concerned woman for a short while, Nick hung up and Alex activated his pre-arranged hack into the local phone company. In seconds, all trace of the phone number that Beth had called was erased from their records (not that there was much to erase, the number being officially an unused one) and a new, equally anonymous connection was allocated to the line so that they could dial out.
"How long are we gonna keep her on the hook, Nicky?" Alex asked. It wouldn't take him more than a couple of minutes to finalise a new identity for Beth. Most of the work had already been done when he had planned *their* new IDs; it was hardly an extra strain to do it for three people instead of two.
"How long will it take you to organise us out of here?" Nick shot back. "We should leave as soon as possible, preferably tonight or tomorrow. If this is a set-up, then we'll upset their timing; they're expecting us to take a couple of days, and then we get back to her as quick as we can, with everything already done."
"Not a problem, Nicky," Alex replied, running another program. "Gimme five minutes and I'll have us on a flight to Europe tomorrow morning. You can make the drop before we leave town, and we can ring Mrs Luthor from the airport in Portland."
"Great. Guess I'd better get packing, then."
"What for? We can get all new stuff in Europe."
"Alex … Airlines look at you funny if you don't have any luggage. And we don't want to be remembered as 'those odd-balls with only a briefcase and laptop', now do we?"
"Good point." With that, Alex turned back to the computer and Nick headed for the closet.
3:47 a.m., Metropolis time.
A group of tired, dispirited and deeply worried LexCorp employees filed out of their CEO's office. They had done as much in the way of investigation and damage limitation as they could for the moment. They had plans for further action, but these would have to await the new day.
Unfortunately, the new day would also see their plight splashed all over the media. Already, LexCorp subsidiaries in the Far East and Europe were having to deal with enquiries regarding losses suffered on local exchanges; it was only a matter of time before the news spread and some enterprising reporter or TV pundit started to do some simple arithmetic — at which point, all hell would break loose, and Ground Zero for its escape would be right here at the corporation's headquarters in Metropolis. The PR Director was *not* looking forward to that!
The reactions of local, state and Federal government were further complicating factors. The Treasury and the Justice Department had been mollified — for now - - and they had both promised to pass on any results of their own investigations that they felt would not prejudice future indictments or court proceedings. This "promise" was felt by the LexCorp people to be one big escape clause, and they'd believe in government "co-operation" when and if they saw it; you didn't have to be a genius to know that the company and its employees were the prime suspects in any external investigation.
Despite that, though, the really worrying aspect of the whole mess was that, although they were certain that the losses were the result of deliberate, malicious fraud, there was as yet no way to *prove* that; and, while proof might be found, in time, creditors faced with the prospect losses of their own — for there was no way that LexCorp could meet the accumulated debt — might not allow them to spend time and effort to look for it, much less take action against the perpetrators. It was far more likely that the corporation would be asset- stripped, subsidiaries and divisions being sold off for whatever they could raise. LexCorp would cease to exist.
Luthor saw his underlings to the elevator, then returned to his office, in passing telling the loyal, but exhausted, Miss Stafford to go and get some sleep. Once alone and behind closed doors, he stood in the centre of the room for some time, deep in silent thought. Eventually, he went over to a painting hanging on one wall. He moved the painting, revealing a small wall-safe behind it.
Opening the safe required but a few moments, although he was careful about it: make a mistake in manipulating the dial, and a small explosive charge was armed for detonation in five seconds. Unless corrective action was taken, everything in the safe would be destroyed, and alarms would go off in Security posts throughout the building.
Once the door was open, Luthor reached in and took out a leather-bound note- book. It was unimpressive to look at, but the man holding it knew that it was probably the most important and valuable of all his possessions. And yet, no-one alive, other than its owner, knew of its existence, and its very value meant that it was almost never out of the safe.
That value was almost a contradiction in itself. It was, Luthor had sometimes thought, rather like a nuclear arsenal: it only had any true value as long as it did not have to be used; once it was used, it ceased to have any worth at all. The contents of the note-book further resembled a nuclear arsenal in that they were a weapon of last resort — but if this was not a time to use every means available to strike back at whomever had tried to destroy his life's work, then what was?
He sat down at his desk and placed the book on a small stand which held it open at a specific page, revealing line after line of neat, crabbed writing, with occasional brief and cryptic annotations in Luthor's own hand. He turned on the elegant, expensive, yet rarely-used work-station on the desk and settled down to work. He'd done everything that could be done publicly; now, it was time to discover who was behind this outrage.
One of the first things to be established in the earliest stages of what little investigation had already been undertaken, was that the debts were real. This was not a case of double bookkeeping or some other example of "creative accountancy." Brokers all over the world, both within and without LexCorp, had received instructions to make specified transactions on stock, futures and currency exchanges, and they had carried out those instructions in good faith. The size of the transactions might have been rather large, but this was LexCorp, and large-scale investments were not unusual.
The size of the ensuing losses *was* unusual but, by then, the damage had been done.
This pointed the finger at the original instructions, and, very soon, one common factor became evident: they had all been received by computer. In fact, some of the largest losses had been caused by LexCorp's own automated trading software following "special orders" supposedly originating from within the company.
Knowing that didn't help much, however, because the e-mails, attachments and command sequences looked to be perfectly legitimate: they came from the right people (or their computer accounts), they used the correct, LexCorp proprietary, data protection protocols, and their contents were exactly what the recipients were used to seeing in dozens of similar messages. Only the results were different …
It was those results, though, that told Luthor that the messages that produced them were not legitimate. Any other explanation defied belief. A disgruntled employee or ex-employee might be able to cause losses like these by making use of company resources, but not on this scale. The faked instructions had been "sent" from dozens of computer accounts located in every LexCorp subsidiary connected with finance and investment — AustLex Pty Ltd, LexUK PLC, Banque de LexCorp CIE, LexAsia Guaranty Trust, a host of others … and, of course, Lexor Industrial Bank.
It was the latter that Luthor was investigating right now. A particularly large loss had been caused by a rogue order file sent to LIB's stock trading system, which some marketing genius with a taste for bad puns had named "LIBerator". The data in that file had caused a 50-point drop in the Dow in the space of ten minutes, and had "liberated" nearly a billion dollars from the bank's coffers.
The file itself seemed to have materialised out of thin air, if the records of the system could be believed. The command sequence had caused the normal operation of the system to halt for less than a second, but in that time, the file had overwritten the standard operating criteria, replacing the usual set with insane instructions that could only have been designed to lose as much money as possible. But there was no indication of how the file had entered the system — or, indeed, that it had ever existed, other than what it had done.
The only clue was the time at which the system interruption had taken place. That gave a later limit as to when the file could have arrived — if it had come from outside; there was always the possibility that the commands had simply been entered from a system terminal, but that would imply a conspiracy within the bank, and Luthor was not inclined to think that that was the case. Not yet, anyway.
The earliest time that the file could have entered the system was limited by the daily diagnostic check, made 15 minutes before the start of trading for the day. Together, these two limits established a period of just over four hours during which the rogue commands could have arrived. And it was this period that Luthor was now checking for some indication as to when and where the file had originated.
That is, he was waiting while a special search engine, the product of LexCorp Security's anti-hacking section, checked through the thousands of electronic messages that LIB had received during the critical period from both external and internal sources. 'You set a thief to catch a thief,' he mused, watching as the smoke from his cigar gently billowed into the air. And if the thief happened to be electronic, then he would have to hide from some of the, if not *the* most advanced software in the world.
The software in question had been specifically designed to detect and track attempts to gain unauthorised access to LexCorp systems. It was frustrating— no, *infuriating*, that it was still in development. There were plans for its eventual use right across the corporation, but, naturally, they hadn't been implemented yet. Like the security upgrades he had devised … what, less than a day ago? — those plans would now go down in history as a classic example of the stable door being bolted after the horse had kicked over the entire building!
Fortunately, the software, incomplete and untested as it was, had some of the capabilities that its designers intended; Luthor could only hope that that would be enough. As far as he could tell, the program was working, albeit in a less direct and more time consuming manner than he would have preferred.
It took several minutes, but finally, the program displayed a list of messages that were, according to its internal criteria, "anomalous." The list was blessedly short, and most of the anomalies were straight forward transmission glitches, attachments of unusual size or unrecognised format, even a couple of viruses that had "piggy backed" themselves on what looked to be quite innocent e mails (but were detected and erased by the IT Division's anti viral screen, Luthor was pleased to see) … and one mysterious entry that caught his eye very quickly.
The message's mystery lay in the fact that it had no destination or, if it had had one (which presumably it must have done, or what was it doing in the system?) that destination had been erased. What caught the eye even more readily than the lack of a destination was its origin an address at the Gotham City Council's Parks and Recreation Department!
Luthor frowned. Someone hacks into LIB's computers with a fraudulent command file that costs LexCorp nearly a *billion dollars* … from the Gotham City *Parks* Office? What was going on here? He'd expected to find a corporate rival, or someone with a grudge against himself or the company, or even indications of an attempt by, say, Intergang to destroy his power base but *this?* Could this whole disaster be nothing more than the work of some over grown adolescent playing stupid games to relieve the monotony of a dead end job as a minor bureaucrat?
The thought was intolerable, and Luthor's face contorted unconsciously into a feral snarl as he vowed that if this *was* some fool's idea of a game, that the idiot would live to regret it but not for long … But then he re considered, and his expression softened and became thoughtful once again. That address was suspicious; most government computer accounts named the owner directly, so that people wishing to contact that particular department could send their messages to the right person. This address, on the other hand … the account "name" was a string of alpha numeric gibberish. Luthor sincerely doubted that there was such a person as "gbu28a15"; that sounded more like a military weapons designation than a name!
And if that was the case … He called up another section of the anti hacking program and told it to trace the account. It didn't take long Gotham City Council used computers manufactured by a company that had "merged" with the IT Division, so it was exceedingly simple to find the codes with which to access their system files. The results were what he had begun to suspect: there was no permanent account with that name on the system. There was, however, or had been, a temporary one for a short period yesterday, and the records of its activity, although sparse, had not yet been overwritten.
'A *ha!* Just as I thought!' He was right; the Gotham City account was a decoy, intended to mislead anyone trying to trace the intrusion into the LIB system. That was something of a relief; the range of possible suspects was wide open again, but at least he didn't have to face the possibility of losing everything he owned to some moron who thought it an amusing way to pass a few moments, in between filing purchase orders for weed killer!
The next step was to examine the record of the bogus account while they were still there. A quick command brought up a screenful of information as to what the account "owner" had been doing with it while it was in existence. The list of activities was surprisingly short: it seemed that the account had been created for the sole purpose of receiving an e-mail message (presumably the LIBerator command file) and forwarding it on; once that had been accomplished, the account shut itself down, with no permanent records to show that it had ever existed.
Sighing with relief that he'd managed to find it in time one system shut down, or a power outage, or even just a slightly higher level of normal activity, and the account records would have been erased. As it was, though, he was able to trace the path of the bogus command file from the Gotham computer to … the *White House?!*
Luthor was stunned. Perhaps it was naive of him, but he hadn't expected a *political* motive. LexCorp was too big and employed too many people for a sensible politician to want to destroy it: control it, yes; break it up, perhaps; reduce its influence, almost certainly; but not *destroy* it too many people, all over the country, depended on LexCorp for their livelihoods, and no one who had the political savvy to get elected wanted to alienate (to put it mildly) that many voters. And the current Administration had its own problems; there was no way that they'd want a major economic upheaval, not even as a distraction.
Nonetheless, there it was: the crooked command file had been sent to the Gotham City computer from an account at "white house.gov".
Luthor's gaze moved from the monitor screen to the note-book in its stand. This was the crunch point: he had to decide now, once and for all, whether or not to sacrifice the information in that book in order to continue the hunt for LexCorp's assailant. The book was the product of decades of careful research and planning — and not a small amount of bribery, "interrogation" and blackmail — but, once used, the existence of its contents would become known and steps would be taken to prevent them ever being used again.
It was really no contest. What good was information if it could not be used? And time was running out, both for LexCorp and its CEO. He *had* to discover who was behind this, so that he could plan a counter-attack and find some way of preserving the company. If that meant using "weapons of last resort" … then so be it.
He took up the book and flipped through the pages. 'Now, where is it?' he thought. 'Ah! There we are. Oh, this will be easy. How kind of the President to award LexTronics the contract to standardise the federal government's communication systems … '
Luthor began to type commands into his computer. He took his time, checking and double-checking each line before hitting Return. What he wanted to do was simple enough; avoiding the safeguards placed around the White House system was the tricky part, even with the special access codes from the note-book. One error, and alarms would go off in military and intelligence agencies all over Washington.
It took time, but, with care and patience, Luthor was successful, as he knew he would be. He was relieved, although he didn't waste time expressing it, to find that the President and his Administration had no more instigated the attack on LexCorp than had the Gotham City Parks Department. The command file that he was tracing had been forwarded to some minor White House functionary's e-mail account from a server somewhere outside the United States. Quite why this was indicated, rather than simply giving the complete address, wasn't clear, but it didn't take very long to strip away the typical governmental obfuscation and reveal that the message in question had originated with the Dominion Reserve Bank of New Zealand.
Luthor raised an eyebrow at that, but he was beginning to see a pattern. He doubted that the New Zealand financial community was attempting to bring down LexCorp any more than the US government or Gotham City. This was one more decoy — and a potentially troublesome one; he wasn't at all sure that there was anything in his note-book that could help him follow the path of the rogue file through such a relatively obscure system, so far away.
He was wrong. It took a little searching, but there were the codes he needed. He recognised the handwriting and smiled unpleasantly. 'Well done, Nigel. Efficient as always. What a shame your loyalty didn't match your competence … '
Of course, since Nigel had been dead for … oh, four years now, there was always the possibility that his information was obsolete. That could be a problem … but it wasn't; the bank's system accepted the codes with no hesitation. In fact, Luthor was astonished at the level of access that he had; he made a mental note to get LexTronics and IT to put in a bid to replace this antiquated, ridiculously insecure system — if, that is, either division still existed in the future.
Meantime, having such a high level of access made tracing the e-mail message to the White House simple enough. Once again, an obscure e-mail account that normally saw almost no traffic had been suborned to forward on the LIBerator command file. And it was the work of but a few seconds to find where the file had been sent from, to uncover the next link in this chain of deceit; Luthor sat back with a small smile of satisfaction as the origin of the incoming message was revealed as …
'Oh, my God … '
Luthor's eyes bulged and his jaw clenched as he shot forward in his seat to stare incredulously at the screen. His mind whirled, fury, astonishment, chagrin, disbelief and … yes, even *relief*, warring for predominance. This … this was unbelievable … but it was so *obvious!* Who *else* would strike at LexCorp like this? Who else would be *able* to?
Self-contempt stabbed at him. How could he have been so *stupid?* How could he, Lex Luthor, have been so childishly naive? He had made repeated attacks on Kent and his family over the years — tried to kill him and his parents, to steal his wife and child — and then relied on the alien's sense of *ethics* to prevent retribution? How insane! He, of all people, knew that "ethical" people were the most dangerous adversaries — once they'd given up the restraints that had previously limited their actions.
He'd prided himself on the "fact" that he was free to act as he wished, bound only by the need to maintain a respectable facade to the outside world — and that was not much of a limitation — whereas the great Superman, possessor of physical powers that could have conquered the world, was helpless to do anything outside the laws that kept the ignorant masses under control.
And even when he'd known that Kent had hacked into the cloning records, he'd still expected the alien to be powerless without proof that would stand up in a court of law. He'd taken precautionary measures, but otherwise had been dismissive of any threat from that quarter. Now, it was blatantly obvious that Kent had been testing his defences; the attempt to probe the cloning project was merely a feint, a forerunner of a full-scale attack on LexCorp. And he *hadn't seen it!* He, the Great Strategist, who prided himself on his foresight and ability to plan for all possible contingencies, hadn't even considered that Superman would— *could* do such a thing!
This changed everything. If Kent had abandoned his senseless insistence on staying within the law, then their conflict had moved to a much higher level. Luthor cast his mind back to the first time he met Superman, nearly six years ago: the Kryptonian, having saved the Prometheus and EPRAD's space program, had come, foolishly, to confront him, saying that he knew (but, of course, could not prove) who was ultimately responsible for the sabotage of the Messenger, and to warn that he would be watching him in the future. Lex had replied, "Let the games begin … " But this was no game, not now — this was *war!*
And yet … need it be? For just a moment, Luthor saw a glorious future open up; if Kent had decided to move outside the law, then might he not consider going even further? The thought of what could be done with the resources of LexCorp and the power of Superman was dazzling …
But then reality pushed its way in, and the golden vista faded. Yes, Kent would make a superb ally— partner, even — but he was Luthor's *enemy*, and there was no time in which to turn him into anything else. The alien had struck a near- mortal blow at LexCorp, and Luthor had no choice but to defend himself — and against such a foe, no measures could be too extreme.
If this was war, then it was time to seize the initiative — to *attack!* Fortunately, he still had the time and resources with which to do so; all he needed was a target.
And then the plan burst upon him in a flash of … it could only be called clarity. Like all great plans, it was gloriously simple, singularly appropriate … and quite devastating. Kent had attacked his power base; Luthor would return the favour. Then, when Superman came to defend his adherents, he would be utterly destroyed.
It was a shame that there was not just a *little* more time to arrange matters, or he could have organised a simultaneous kidnapping of his enemy's daughter. However, that was a mere trifle; once her father was dead, the little girl would be quite easy to … obtain. If she survived his attack.
Her mother would have to be killed, of course, and it was surprising that that thought could still cause him pain, but he hardened his heart with the thought that she had rejected him more than once, and, if she chose to marry and even breed with an alien, then she would have to live with the consequences — or not. After all, she too might die when he struck at her husband.
Time, which prevented his plan from being quite as elegant as he might have liked, was definitely of the essence. He had to decide when would be the best moment to launch his attack, but he needed to start the preparations for it as soon as possible. He looked out at the dawn, now starting to break over the Metropolis skyline, and realised that the preparations could be made by others while he got some much-needed rest.
Two quick e-mail messages later, he made his way to the office couch. He would not return to the penthouse tonight, even though it was only a few doors away. He had neither the time nor the patience to deal with domestic trivialities right now; all his energy, all his concentration must focus on the battle to come.
Beth would understand. She had no choice in the matter.
At much the same time, the dawn light seeped its way into the master bedroom at 348 Hyperion Avenue. Lois' eyes fluttered and consciousness made a not-very- determined attempt to establish itself. Its primary, near-instinctual concern was her daughter, who had been something of an early bird lately, but there were no sounds coming from Laura's room, not even the quiet, playful little chuckles with which the little girl often started the day — until she realised that she was hungry and/or wet, and called for her parents.
Maternal anxieties allayed, Lois relaxed again, rolling over to cuddle up to her husband. Had she been more awake, she would have delighted in the fact that the world had been remarkably quiet that night; Clark hadn't had to go out to help *anyone*, which was worthy of note in the busy lives of the Lane-Kent household. To turn over in bed and find her husband there, and know that, for once, he'd been there *all night*, was a wonderful feeling — almost as wonderful as finding him there, and snuggling up to him, and holding him and being held by him …
Lois *would* have delighted in all this, had she been more awake. As it was, she merely smiled gently as an equally content Clark placed a soft kiss on her head before the two of them drifted back into sleep that could only be described as blissful.
"Bye, sweetie. Bye, Ruth." Lois waved to Laura and the day-care centre staff as she headed off to start her working day. With a little help from Mrs Wilson, the little girl waved back, but it was obvious to everyone that her attention was more on her surroundings than the rapidly-vanishing figure of her mother. Lois sighed as she headed for the elevator, just ever-so-slightly wistful at her daughter's growing independence; it was a real relief, especially to Clark, not to have to worry about separation anxiety any more, but seeing Laura distracted by toys and the other children caused an inevitable pang inside her.
The first of many, she knew. Her little girl would not stay a baby any more than she had herself; she would grow through childhood and adolescence into the fine woman that both her parents were certain that she'd be, and that process would, by its very nature, mean that she would leave her mother and father behind in order to strike out on her own in the great adventure that was life.
Lois wasn't looking forward to "losing" Laura, or any other children that she and Clark might be blessed with, but the Hypergirl business, a few months ago, had impressed upon her that, as the Bible put it, "to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven." Although what Heaven had to do with that horrible little gnome and his twisted plans, she had *no* idea.
Still, that whole mess with Muckraker hadn't been a total loss; the Bible was right, and Lois was rock-fast in her resolve that, when the time came to let her children leave the nest, she would do so with all the pride and joy that she could muster. Whatever happened, she would *not* be one of those clinging mothers. She knew that the legacy of her own troubled childhood, not to mention later emotional scars, had left her more than usually vulnerable to fears of abandonment, which could make her prime material that way — but the same legacy and scars made her gorge rise at the thought of that kind of emotional blackmail.
'Uh-uh! No way,' she thought. 'Not *this* little black duck … '
Lois was lost in her thoughts, and so didn't notice the tension in her jaw that had developed as she privately reaffirmed her determination to do the right thing for her children. Her co-workers did, though, watching with not a little trepidation as she left the elevator and headed for her desk. A sizeable number of them either decided to leave or mentally battened down the hatches: when Lane looked like *that* … watch out!
One person who had perforce to join the latter group watched with ill-disguised relief as the storm signals seemed to evaporate into thin air as Clark handed his wife a coffee with his usual perfect timing. Lois took the mug and sipped gratefully. She met her husband's eyes, grinning despite herself as she acknowledged that yes, it was just how she liked it — as usual — then snorted in mock disgust at his smug expression as she booted her computer and began the working day.
Now that Lois was in a better mood — and how Clark was able to charm her out of an impending blow-up with nothing more than a cup of coffee had to be one of the great mysteries of the modern world — the watcher felt better able to approach her. She would have had to, anyway, but she could now do so with rather more confidence that she'd survive the encounter.
"Morning, Lois. Got a minute?"
"Oh, hi, Donna. Sure — take a seat. What's up?"
Donna McIntyre was a relative newcomer to the Planet staff, but already had a growing reputation as a hot-shot financial reporter. Her work didn't usually lead her to cross paths with Lane and Kent, although they'd teamed up on occasion when an investigation turned out to have commercial implications, or vice versa. As far as Lois knew, none of her current stories required Donna's expertise, so she was intrigued at being approached by the woman. Donna knew her stuff, so this could mean that she needed something investigated — and *that* had all sorts of interesting possibilities …
"I don't quite know what's up, Lois … but *something* sure is. I got here … what? Twenty minutes ago? To be greeted by a *huge* pile of call-me-back messages — written *and* voice mail — from people I know, and quite a lot I don't, all over the world; then there's all the e-mail waiting for me, and my phone hasn't stopped, either.
"The weird thing is that, for all those messages asking, begging or, in one case, downright *ordering* me to get in touch, no-one said *why* they wanted to talk to me. Which is odd … "
Lois nodded in unconscious agreement. Donna saw this, and her alert expression, and sighed to herself in relief. She'd thought that it might be difficult to interest her colleague in something as … vague as that morning's flurry of activity, especially when she knew she'd have to admit that she didn't really know what was going on. But whatever was happening was more than enough to rouse her journalistic instincts, and it was welcome reassurance to see that a reporter with Lois' reputation and experience felt the same way.
Heartened by this, she went on, "Anyway, I started to work my way down the list, but I didn't get the chance because half the guys I was going to call rang me first! And this is where things start to get interesting …
"It was the same thing, wherever they were from. Unusual— heck, downright weird stories about American companies, or their local agents, making big losses on the local exchanges or in some other kind of trading. And I mean *big* losses — the kind that can have a major effect on indexes and commodity prices. The FTSE, the Hang Seng, the All-Ordinaries, they're all down; so is the Dow, and so are futures on just about everything — cocoa, wheat, pork bellies, the lot! The dollar could have taken a big hit, but the Treasury stepped in and cushioned it a bit — not that much, though."
Lois' eyes began to glaze over at the flood of financial technicalities, but Donna was expecting this and cut to the chase, becoming more and more excited and animated as she said: "The thing is, Lois, I think I'm onto something that no-one else is — yet — because all these guys wanted to talk to *me*. They'll get around to comparing notes soon enough — Europe, Asia, Australasia, they're all buzzing about this — but right now, I think I've got a lead on them all!"
She paused for a moment, catching her breath, before continuing, "Everybody wanted to talk to me— well, let's be honest; to *pump* me — because these huge losses were made by firms or brokers acting for a big multi-national with its headquarters here in Metropolis! But so far, nobody else has heard the full story, which is that all these losses have been made by the *same* company! And it's got to be in *big* trouble!
"Why I wanted to talk to you was that—"
"Don't tell me," Lois interrupted. "Big multi-national company, headquarters in Metropolis, and you wanted to pump *me* about it … Donna, are you talking about LexCorp?"
Donna grinned; trust Lois to guess where she was going! "You got it, Lois. I know you keep an eye on Lex Luthor and his doings, so I wondered if you knew anything that might relate to this. Does he need a lot of cash in a hurry for something? Or is he doing so well that he needs a huge tax loss — 'cause if I'm right, he's sure got *that*, in spades! As far as I can tell, LexCorp took a real hit over the last 36 hours, and it's gotta be hurting … "
Lois was silent, but Donna could see that she was thinking furiously. What the other woman couldn't tell, though, was what Lois was thinking about. What could this mean? Henderson should be getting the results of the DNA tests any day now; two of Lex's "assistants" were in prison, charged with murder or attempted murder, and one of them had implicated him in a whole lot more killings; and now LexCorp was in financial trouble, too?
'It never rains till it pours,' she thought. 'It's almost as though someone's out to get him … ' But she dismissed that idea, even as she grinned inside at the thought; sure, there were an awful lot of people who'd dearly like to see Lex brought down, herself and Clark being at or near the top of the list, but who would be able to arrange so many different kinds of trouble simultaneously? No, she'd let the conspiracy theorists see a devious mastermind behind everything; it made more sense to think that Lex had simply over-extended himself, both financially and in terms of the lies he used to preserve his precious reputation, and all his houses of cards were starting to collapse at much the same time. Poetic justice …
Still, if LexCorp did have business worries, it would keep Lex and his lawyers occupied, which meant that they'd be unprepared for Henderson when he blew the lid off the phoney clone story. And *that* couldn't happen too soon.
Lois realised that she should tell Clark about this; it might affect the way in which they handled the story of Lex's downfall. She looked over at his desk, but he wasn't there, so she stood up and searched the office for him … and then remembered Donna.
She sat back down with something of a thud, and apologised to the surprised woman, "Sorry, Donna. I was just looking for Clark; I think he'd like to know about this. I'm afraid I can't help you — I don't know of any reason why Lex would need that much money ('Except maybe to pay his lawyers,' she snickered to herself), and I can't imagine him ever needing or wanting to *lose* it — but I'd really appreciate it if you kept us up-to-date on this; it might just tie into something else that we're working on."
"Sure, Lois, be glad to. And you have helped; if Mr Luthor doesn't need money that badly — or, rather, he *didn't* — and doesn't want a tax write-off, then that tells me that I'm not missing something, that LexCorp could be in real trouble. Now all I gotta do is confirm all this and try to get some quotes from someone from the company. Oh, what a scoop if I'm right!"
Lois had to grin as Donna headed back to her own desk; her enthusiasm was infectious … and oh, so familiar. Lois knew just how she felt — and was hoping to feel that way herself, very soon. 'Come on, Dr Klein,' she urged their friend, 'We need those DNA results … '
There was no response to this plea, naturally. But Clark came out of Perry's office, and Lois waved him over to tell him of the growing problems besetting their foe — or, she wondered gleefully, with the way things seemed to be happening, was *target* a more appropriate description?
Luthor stepped back from the sights of the weapon and beheld it with mixed emotions. It wasn't much to look at, truth to tell, not in the carefully- designed casing that hid its true nature from curious eyes — especially those of its intended victim. A portable telescope, albeit a large and uncommonly fine one, was not an unusual sight on a skyscraper balcony, and *this* balcony, the highest in the city, was the perfect place to put such an object; there'd even been a real telescope here some years ago, when the Nightfall asteroid threatened the civilised world …
He shook his head sharply, a pained look on his face. He didn't want to think about that time. He'd offered Lois the chance to survive the end of the world, but she'd turned it down. And why? Because she "had to see what happened!" She'd rejected the chance to be one of a mere two hundred people who would build a new and better world from the ashes of the old — to be the *Queen* of the world thereafter, as he would have been the King. She'd rejected the chance to *live!* She'd rejected *him!* And all for that rag she worked for and her stupid, insignificant little job — not even for Kent, he was sure, but because she couldn't control her own curiosity!
Well, both she and the Daily Planet had little time left, thanks to the "telescope" that had sparked these memories. Soon — not soon enough, but soon - - its power, power that could not be seen, only felt, would eradicate them *and* the meddling alien whose bidding they did. And with his enemies gone, he, Lex Luthor, would rebuild his empire to ever greater heights. No-one could stand in his way; with Superman dead at his hand, he would be unstoppable!
Unfortunately, before that glorious future could be realised, there were, as always, practical difficulties to be overcome. If genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains, then greatness must be the ability to deal with obstacles, large and small, that stand in your way, however frustrating. And it was incredibly frustrating to have to delay his attack— his *triumph!* — for something as mundane as charging a battery!
Not that the power cells that supplied this weapon with energy were anything like ordinary batteries, domestic or industrial. No, their creation had been a major piece of research and development in its own right, and the sheer amount of energy that they could store had amazed even the scientists and engineers who had built them. However, the drawback to that huge capacity was that, like a swimming pool, it took a long time to fill — especially when, instead of using industrial- or military-standard generators, one was limited to the output of the Metropolis electrical grid!
But that was necessary, as necessary as the telescope disguise. The weapon— he really *had* to come up with a decent name for it; "Project LD9875" had no style at all — would do its job, but it had to be done out of the public eye. It wouldn't do for the rabble to discover that he had killed their precious super- hero, after all. Not that they would; the beam was invisible, and after he had destroyed the Daily Planet and killed Kent, the weapon would be set to consume itself, leaving no trace of its existence. Only its effects would remain to bear witness to its awesome power — and his victory.
That victory would also demonstrate Lex Luthor's ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Originally, he had planned to charge the weapon at one of LexPower's generating plants, and then ambush Superman at a time and place of his choosing, but Kent's strike at LexCorp had ruined that idea; it was too risky to move the weapon, and anything out of the ordinary at *any* LexCorp site while the corporation was in trouble could attract attention. Time was important, but so was secrecy, and so he was stuck with the absurd situation of plugging the power cells into a common electrical socket! And waiting …
In a way, it was almost fitting that the power to destroy his enemy should come from the city, the city that he would again dominate as he had before that alien showed up. Had he been able to follow his original plan, he would have had to move the weapon out of town in order to charge it — after the nuclear power plant fiasco five years ago, LexPower had no generating capacity in the city itself. It supplied Metropolis with most of its electricity, but from distant locations. The City Council, in addition to requiring LexCorp to clean up the wreck of the ruined plant — a *billion dollars* of scrap metal and radioactive waste, thanks to Kent! — *and* pay compensation for the "unexpected" change in Metropolis' micro-climate, had decided that no power plants (especially not nuclear reactors) were welcome within the city limits. Well, that would soon be corrected …
Such musings were pleasant enough, but they only served to while away the time while the power cells charged, a process that wouldn't be completed until the next morning by his estimation. Time to turn one's attention to more immediate, if less important concerns.
'That's that,' Nick said to himself as he hung up the phone. Beth Luthor's new identity was set up, the information and documents establishing that identity were lodged with the local post office for collection, and Beth herself had just been notified of where and how to pick them up. Now it was time to get the heck out of here and start a new life in Europe.
Alex would be surprised to learn that he'd already called Mrs Luthor, but it made more sense to contact her *before* going to the airport. Calling from there was a dead give-away that they'd gone somewhere by air; this way, anyone who might try to find them couldn't even be sure that they'd left town!
It was strange that doing something so minor could make a person feel so good, but Nick was feeling better than he had for weeks. Maybe it was because he actually had something to *do*, rather than just trying to keep himself occupied while Alex hacked away. With no work of his own to do and no way to help his brother, he'd spent far too much time sitting around reading magazines and tabloids, brooding on Chris' death and Alex's peculiarities … and doing all the cooking and cleaning — it was either that or be crowded out of the apartment by empty pizza boxes!
At least he wouldn't have to do *that* again, thank God. Alex had set up *huge* Swiss bank accounts for both of them, siphoning money from LexCorp at the same time as he undermined it, and Nick swore that some of *his* money was going to pay for a cook and housekeeper for the rest of his life!
He began to run through other ways in which his new income could be utilised. For one thing, he'd never have to worry about funding his research again. Of course, publishing his work would be a problem; he'd have to use a false name, and he couldn't go to conferences lest he be recognised. Hmmm … maybe he could get some plastic surgery done. It would seem weird to not look like himself, but it would be worth it to be an active part of the scientific community and not have to worry.
And then there were the everyday things that he could now afford: a decent apartment — maybe even a house; a car; hey, he'd *finally* be able to learn to fly … He turned a corner into the street where he'd left Alex in their rented car, and went to cross over to it. As always, he checked the traffic in both directions, but, preoccupied with the pleasant future that was opening up before him, his glances up and down the quiet street were rather perfunctory. So it was that he was that fraction of a second too late in seeing the delivery van that shot out of a nearby alley, turned right in a screech of rubber and accelerated away, its motor growling … just in time to slam straight into him as he stepped off the kerb.
Alex watched in horror as Nick was thrown into the air, crashing to the ground several yards away. The van driver hit his brakes, but too hard, and he skidded; the rear end of the van swung sideways as it careered along the street, and both sets of wheels ran over Nick's motionless body before it finally came to a halt.
"*NICKY!!*" Alex yelled from inside the car. He grabbed for the door handle— and stopped in sudden fear. The way that van had been driven — was that deliberate? Had Luthor found them? Was this a "hit" by some LexCorp goon, made to look like an accident? Was the driver, now kneeling by Nick with an appalled expression, secretly smirking at the success of his attack? Was he looking for anyone who might have accompanied his victim? Had he heard Alex's scream?
For once in his life, Alex was paralysed by indecision. He wanted to go to his brother, but he didn't dare. He knew he ought to either take the risk and help Nick, or get out of there right away, but he couldn't bring himself to do either. He hated himself for it, but he just couldn't decide what to do …
Sirens snapped him out of his self-loathing. 'Paramedics — an ambulance! Thank God! Nick'll be okay!' His heart leapt as the emergency vehicles pulled up next to the van and the crews clustered around his brother's still form, hiding it from view as they set to work.
He felt better now. It seemed that staying put had been the right thing to do, after all. Nick was in good hands, and he could follow the ambulance and see where they took him; he could hack into the hospital records and establish another phoney ID for Nick; he could find somewhere to hide and arrange for Nick to be transferred to another hospital, one nearby, once he was out of danger from his injuries; he could hire some private security guards to watch over Nick while he was in hospital; he could …
Alex's plans came to a grinding halt as he watched the ambulance crew load Nick onto a gurney … and gently draw a sheet over his face.
Alex stared disbelievingly as the paramedics packed up their equipment and the ambulance drove off — slowly, almost sedately; there was no reason to hurry, was there? For the second time in as many minutes, Alex didn't know what to do, so he did nothing; all he could think was, 'First Chris, now Nicky … ' Even after the police took the van driver away and the crowd dispersed, he just sat there, staring at nothing, heedless of the world around him or the possible danger from Luthor's assassins …
*Luthor!* This was all *his* fault! It was Luthor's thug who'd killed Chris; it was Luthor who sent the same hoodlum after Nick, Luthor who drove the brothers into hiding; Nick wouldn't have even *been* here to be killed if he hadn't been trying to help Luthor's wife! Help her to escape from her murdering swine of a husband!
*Now* he knew what to do. Alex felt his entire being fill with cold rage and a terrible sense of purpose. He moved over into the driver's seat and started the car, driving off towards the airport, where he would change his ticket for Zurich to one for a flight to Metropolis.
It was not unusual to hear a cry of jubilation ringing across the Daily Planet newsroom. Nor was it unusual for such a cry to emanate from a female source — Lois Lane, for one, had always been prone to broadcasting success far and wide. This cry, however, made heads turn at desks right across the room because it *wasn't* Lois' voice — and, to be honest, no-one could remember hearing a yell quite like that one, and thus didn't know whom it was who was so elated.
It turned out, to the surprise of a number of people, to be Donna McIntyre. Donna had just hung up her phone and had a gleeful expression on her face that shouted "SCOOP!" to her fellow reporters — *and* those of the admin staff with anything much in the way of newsroom experience. Their suspicions were only strengthened when Donna leapt up and made a bee-line for Perry White's office, bypassing her immediate boss, the financial editor; this had to be something big …
To add yet more fuel to the fire, Perry wasn't alone; Lois, Clark and Jimmy were in his office, discussing who knew what — which made it all the more remarkable that Donna wasn't immediately thrown out. She wasn't, though, and the wish of the curious to be a fly on the wall only became stronger when they heard Lois and Clark simultaneously yelp, "*What?*" after Donna breathlessly explained why she'd barged in on them.
That was all they heard for some time, but those few who could see into the office reported to their less fortunate colleagues that there was a very animated conversation going on. Then everyone gathered around the editor's desk in what was obviously a major strategy session.
One copy-boy, enjoying a rare coffee-break, looked at his watch; if this meant that some big story had just broken, the boss was cutting it fine: deadline for the evening edition was in twenty minutes. Despite this, he gulped what was left of his coffee and prepared himself for a busy afternoon. His feeling of anticipation grew when Lois, Clark and Donna erupted from Perry's office and dived for their desks; Jimmy was barely behind them, and bolted for the photo archive. Yep, it was going to be one of *those* days …
The evening edition of the Planet was uncharacteristically late in going to press that day, the deadline being passed by an almost unprecedented half-an- hour, but its editor counted the time well spent. If he knew anything about the news business, this edition's front page was going to end up framed and mounted on the wall, next to headlines commemorating the triumphs of investigative journalism for which the newspaper was famous; yep, this one would be up there with such recent classics as the first Superman interview, the sabotage of the Shockwave coastal defence system, and the exposure of "President" John Doe.
What made him even more pleased was that this story *wasn't* written by Lane & Kent. Lois and Clark were the best, no doubt about it, but the Daily Planet had always been, and *had* to be, more than just two reporters, no matter how excellent. Donna had proven herself to be a worthy addition to the team.
Besides, he grinned to himself, Lois was gonna be so mad at the thought of someone else winning a Kerth for this that she was bound to go out and find an even *better* story!
The evening edition of the Daily Planet hit the streets of Metropolis at its usual time, the delay in Editorial being made up by heroic efforts on the part of the Printing and Distribution staff — and the carefully-hidden safety margin that Perry had built into every deadline for just such an occasion. As usual, copies were delivered to stores, news-stands, homes and businesses all over the city … including several that found their way to Metropolis Prison.
Most copies of the paper were read by prison staff who took the briefest of looks at the front page, if that, and then turned immediately to those parts of the paper that they considered interesting — the sport section, the classified ads, even the comics. Very few paid much attention to the news, and particularly not today; who cared if some rich big shot was having money troubles? Served the bum right …
One copy, however, was read by someone — an orderly in the prison infirmary — who took a genuine interest in the front page and its banner headline. This might just be the thing to make O'Reilly talk — always assuming that there was any point now, if the Planet was right. It was probably worth a try anyway — who knew what the guy might know about his erstwhile employer? — but the attempt would have to be made straight away; if this was going to work, he wanted to catch O'Reilly before anyone else could get to him and reassure him. He'd be much more likely to co-operate if he felt vulnerable because his "boss" had just lost his shirt.
He gathered up the paper and headed for the kitchen. It shouldn't be hard to get to be the one to take O'Reilly his dinner tonight, and the Planet's headline — "LexCorp Broke?" — oughtta have some real shock value. 'Let's see Eeyore play dumb when *this* is shoved under his nose … '
He was right; it was simplicity itself to casually volunteer to take the trays to O'Reilly's ward, but it turned out to be a waste of time — although, life being what it was, it wasn't until he actually took the guy's meal in there (last of all, so that he'd have time to ask a few questions) that he found out that his target wasn't there.
Cursing, but trying not to show it, he came out of the ward and stopped a passing nurse. "Hey, what happened to Eeyore?"
"Oh, didn't you know?" was the inane reply. Before the orderly could make the obvious retort, the nurse continued, "He was taken out for questioning by some cop about ten minutes ago. I dunno when he'll be back — could be hours; you know cops. I guess you better put that in the oven to keep warm for him … "
He prattled on, but the orderly wasn't listening. Instead, he was silently cursing again, but with more feeling. 'Of all the rotten luck! I finally get a chance to convince Eeyore to open up, and some cop thinks of it, too!' For he had no doubt that this sudden police interest in O'Reilly must be linked to the story in the Daily Planet, and if the guy played along with the cops … well, that would be the end of any advantage that could be gained from pumping him. 'Damn! Intergang will *not* be pleased.'
Henderson sat at his desk, deep in thought. It was late— actually, it was *early* — but he still had a lot to do. Come the morning, he needed to be prepared for what just might be the biggest bust of his career. He'd missed it once when the suspect took a header off a balcony, and he didn't want that to be repeated, so his plan had to be tight. Air-tight, idiot-proof and immune to unexpected happenstance. *Tight.*
Security was a real problem. The suspect must *not* get wind of what was about to happen, or he'd vanish like smoke in a high wind; that was why no-one else — not the Commissioner, not the D.A.'s office, not even the uniformed cops who'd be brought in on the bust — knew what was going to go down later that morning. Which was why he was here now, working out what to do, when to do it and exactly how it was going to be done. The whole operation was going to have to be laid on with no warning, which meant he'd have to brief everyone on every detail, and he'd have to do it right the first time; there wasn't going to be time to explain things, not if the MPD was going to catch *this* perp.
And once they caught him, they had to hold him. Henderson looked at his notes and the files on his desk and mentally reviewed the evidence they contained for something like the tenth time since leaving Metro Prison that evening. The very first thing he had to do was convince a judge to swear out several warrants, including one for the suspect's arrest. That ought not to be a problem, not with Judge Black, a reasonable and scrupulously honest woman, but this was such a major collar that he was worried despite himself that he was seeing more in what he had than was really there. He was *sure* that the judge would agree with him, but he was still nervous.
He'd just about convinced himself yet again that he wasn't over-reacting, that he really *did* have a good case against his suspect, when his phone rang. He grabbed it, praying that it wasn't another case; he didn't need the distraction right now.
"Bill? George. You said, 'any time, day or night', and this is it, buddy! Bernie and I just finished that DNA analysis. It's negative. Clean as a whistle. L— your *suspect* … he may be a louse, he may be a snake, or even a rat, but he ain't no frog! And that's definite. That hair came from your standard-model human being, produced the old-fashioned way, and frogs were *not* part of the process!"
Henderson said nothing, but let out a huge sigh. "George, your timing is impeccable. Can you get those results written up by morning — in a form that I can show to a judge?"
"Already done, man. I kinda figured you'd be under the gun on this one, so I wrote it all up while we were waiting, and filled in the blanks when the results came out. Want me to drop it off at Headquarters on my way home?"
"That'd be great. Thanks, George. I owe you one, big time. And thank Klein for me, would you? Oh, and hey, *don't* let him talk to the press, okay — not even you-know-who. I'll bring 'em in on this the way I promised, but I want to keep it all tight until I've got the warrant."
"Not a problem, Bill. Bernie's right here, and he's mostly interested in going home and sacking out — just like me. I'll see you shortly. Bye."
"Bye." Henderson hung up the phone and sat back. Well, that settled that; he sure as heck didn't need to worry about going to the judge now. Now, all he had to do was plan the raid, collar his suspect and protect his two star witnesses. Oh, yeah … and he ought to get some sleep himself. He'd need to be in good shape, both mentally and physically, for tomorrow— okay, later today.
The alarm clock is probably the most reviled, and certainly the most frequently cursed, of all humanity's inventions. But not always, as was demonstrated the following morning in several households connected with the Daily Planet — and two that were not.
Lois and Clark were already awake when their alarm went off. Laura was an early bird this morning, and Clark had got up when Lois did; that way, they had more time together once their special girl had been attended to. It wasn't quite as good as lazing in bed, but there was a lot to be said for having a leisurely breakfast as a family, or letting Laura play in her room while her parents showered, or … well, there were a lot of fun ways to spend the time.
Over in Kingston, Jimmy dragged his head from his pillow somewhat blearily — and then became more alert as he remembered what day it was. Penny was meeting him for lunch, something that didn't happen often because they both had jobs that kept them busy. Penny had managed to arrange to get away because her boss had just left for an out-of-town conference, and Jimmy just hoped that he would be able to do likewise. Trouble was, he had a feeling — nothing more than that; just a sort of prickle of uneasy anticipation, which he rather liked because it reminded him of Lois' many descriptions of her own "reporter's intuition" — that something big might be going to break, even bigger than Donna's LexCorp story, and if and when it did, Jimmy would bet his bottom dollar that Perry's first word was going to be, "Olsen!"
Lunch was also on the mind of Alice White as she rose, somewhat later in the morning. She'd woken at her usual time, but had not been in any hurry to get up straight away; instead, she'd got comfortable and spent some little while thinking, pondering some of the mysteries of life — specifically, just what she was going to do about Perry.
Three-and-a-half years ago, tired of being alone while he worked himself into an early grave, tired of playing second fiddle to reporters, photographers, stories, scoops, marketing, advertising, circulation, the suits upstairs — in short, to the Daily Planet — she'd walked out on him. Divorce had followed, with all its inevitable unpleasantness, and then a period when she'd tried to strike out on her own and build a new life for herself. She'd succeeded, except when it came to a social life; dating wasn't easy when one was her age — and, to be honest, none of the men she'd met had measured up to her ex-husband, and Alice had no intention of "trading down."
But then, about 18 months after she'd left Perry, she'd seen a personal ad — in the Planet, naturally; she may have divorced its editor-in-chief, but she was hardly going to start reading any other paper — from someone using the pseudonym "Hound-Dog." That should have told her then and there who it was, but she'd missed the Elvis reference (how, she'd never been able to work out), and he'd sounded nice — interested in the same sort of things that she was (and Perry had been) and a few others that sounded intriguing, or at least worth a look — so she'd nerved herself for one more try and written to the box number given in the ad. "Hound-Dog" had replied to her letter, and they'd arranged to meet. And then he'd told her *where* he wanted to meet her — at the place where he worked …
To cut a long story short, and Alice was still unable to think of that time without shaking her head in amazement, the two of them had got back together — after a fashion. It seemed that neither of them had been truly happy with anyone that they'd met during their separation, but Alice wasn't prepared to go back to the way things had been before the divorce. And, to be fair, Perry seemed to have learned something from their time apart; he would always be a workaholic, but he'd learned that there were more things in life than work, and that a person who wanted those things *had* to make time for them. And he'd tried to do that — not always successfully, but he *had* tried.
She was inclined to think that they both owed a small (or not so small) debt of gratitude on that score to Perry's prize reporters, Lane & Kent; Lois had been an even worse workaholic before she met Clark, but now she was a wife and mother (and supremely happy about it, if the occasional glimpses of her that Alice had had recently were any guide) and she and her partner/husband were *still* "the hottest team in town." Alice had sometimes thought that Lois had absorbed too much of Perry's work-till-you-drop attitude, but now it seemed that he was picking up on *her* new way of life. It certainly made him easier to live with - - most of the time.
Which was, really, the nub of the matter. That ol' hound-dog was as charming as he'd ever been — when he'd made the effort — and the idea of living with him on a more permanent basis was very appealing. Their relationship for the last two years had been fun, but somehow, just "dating" wasn't enough, not when they'd had so many years of something closer and more fulfilling … until he seemed to forget she was there …
'Face it, Alice,' she told herself, 'you love the man, but can you stand sharing him with the Daily Planet? You've never had to worry about other women, but your real rival sits on a corner downtown and stains your man's shirts with ink, not lipstick …
'Can you be sure that he won't go back to the way he was if you're always there? Can you cope when he calls you yet again to say that he'll be late — or doesn't bother to call? Or do you think that he's learned his lesson?'
Good questions, all of them; she wished she had equally good answers.
Alice grimaced, and her eyes fell on the newspaper she'd been reading in bed last night. It was, of course, yesterday's evening edition of the Planet, and she smiled at the thoughts that it evoked. If she knew her Perry, he'd be in a real bulldog mood today. A story like that cried out for follow-up, so the newsroom staff were probably going crazy as their boss hounded them to take the story one step further, to find out more, to think about related issues … to come up with the headlines for *today's* paper, and to make them as good as yesterday's!
'Hmmm … now, there's a thought … ' When he was in the middle of one of these rampages, Perry was prone to forget to eat, subsisting on coffee and doughnuts and sheer enthusiasm. Which wasn't exactly good for him … It occurred to her that it might be a kind act (not least of all for his poor newsroom) to take him something to eat; not only that, but it might help her in her current quandary - - if Perry was willing to take a break and have lunch with her in a civilised fashion, then there was hope for them. If not … well, she'd have to think about that.
'I wonder if I can catch Clark without Perry knowing. Lois says he knows the *best* places for take-out … '
Bill Henderson had managed to catch a few hours sleep. Not many, and nothing like as many as he'd have liked, but some, and that was going to have to be enough. At least he was awake enough to get up and head for the bathroom without falling over the pile of reports and transcripts that he'd put next to the bed - - call him paranoid, but he didn't think he'd have been able to sleep at all without knowing exactly where those vital documents were and that no-one could get at them without getting past him personally. Besides, having the evidence with him made things easier, both from a security and a practical point of view: once he was ready to leave, all he'd have to do was load it into his car and head for the judge's office — no delays and definitely no leaks! And *then* …
First, though, he had to get ready, which meant a shower, a shave, some breakfast and, above all, *coffee* …
Lex Luthor was awakened from a fitful sleep by a high-pitched whine. At first, he cursed it, as he cursed the uncomfortable bed he was sleeping on, his uncomfortable pyjamas, the fact that his wife had taken all the covers … and then he realised where he was and what the sound was, and his head shot up to stare hungrily at what was making it — the charge indicator on the "telescope". It was at full power.
'Finally!' he exulted. The waiting was over. He'd camped out in the study for the last 36 hours or so, not wanting to do so much as leave the room while the power cells charged. It was … odd, he knew, and he imagined that Beth was rather upset about his "disappearance", but he'd felt a need to be there while the instrument of his ultimate triumph gathered its strength. So many times in the past, he'd left similar devices or plans to others, or to themselves, and walked away … and they'd failed. Not this time, though; this would be the final battle with that alien, and he was determined that *everything* would be ready, and if that meant personally supervising every aspect of his preparations, down to the smallest detail, then so be it.
His self-proclaimed solitude had been useful, as well. While his underlings had kept the world at bay (no mean feat, especially after the Daily Planet had blazoned to the world the full scale of the losses that LexCorp had suffered. No doubt Kent had briefed his colleague in order to create further chaos to distract the management … ), *he* had been planning for the future. Killing Superman, however exhilarating, would not solve the problem of LexCorp's present vulnerability. However, once Kent was dead, it should not be hard to show that he had been responsible for the fraudulent transactions that had brought the corporation to its current state; the main difficulty would be to get the authorities to trace the same electronic path that he had followed without revealing that he had been there before them. Then, with his enemy exposed as a cheat and a thief, and LexCorp established as his innocent victim, it should be possible to keep the financial wolves at bay long enough to ! re-build. The company would suffer but, with time and patience, and with no interfering Kryptonians around, it could grow to its once and future prosperity and pre-eminence.
Before that, though … He went over to the wall over the fireplace and took down The Sword from its place of honour. For a moment, he held it up, admiring the play of light on the surface of the blade … and on its edge. This sword had once been the personal weapon of the greatest man in the world; it had been his means of striking at his enemies when his armies were not sufficient to crush them without his aid, or when it was his pleasure to deal with them personally. As it would be Lex Luthor's pleasure to deal with Kent and his followers, to destroy them utterly using his own personal weapon. A weapon that Alexander could not have dreamed of, for it wielded power that, to him, would be the province of the gods.
But he, Lex Luthor, had dreamed of it, of the power, and had made that dream into reality. And now that reality would impress itself forcibly on his foes, strike them down in their hubris, the overweening pride that made them dare to challenge *him!* And they would rue the day they thought that they could succeed …
He carried the sword over to where the weapon stood on its tripod, and spent one more moment regarding them together. Then he laid the sword on his desk and turned his back on it. It was of the past; his concern was for the future, and for *that*, *his* weapon was needed.
He took off the "lens covers" on the ends of the "telescope" and its "sighting scope" (in reality, a sophisticated target acquisition device) and turned the sights towards his first target. 'And now to move the pieces to their allotted places. First, Mr Kent, I must ask you to leave the Planet building for a short while … '
The warehouse came into view, and he fired — only a low-powered burst, but more than enough to do what he had in mind.
Clark was in the middle of editing a potted history of LexCorp — a side-bar for Donna's story on world-wide market reaction to the evening edition's revelations — when he heard the sirens. A quick x-ray look revealed that a familiar-looking abandoned warehouse was on fire, and was well and truly ablaze.
'I'd better help,' he thought. 'I haven't heard of anyone sleeping rough round there lately, but I'd hate to be wrong.' He got up from his chair, the motion catching his wife's eye, as he'd hoped it would. He went over to her and leaned down to whisper in her ear, "Honey, can you finish that side-bar for Donna? There's a warehouse fire … "
"Sure," she murmured. He was about to straighten up when she suddenly grabbed his face in both her hands and pulled it to her own for a short, hard, *very* intense kiss.
"Whoa … " he half-gasped when she let him go. "What was that for?"
She smiled at him wickedly. "What, I need a reason now?"
"No … no, but if I've done something right, I'd kinda like to know what it was, so I can keep doing it … "
"That's not a problem … " she replied, casting him a sultry look from under her eyelashes. "Now get out of here before I decide to explain it to you … in *graphic* detail."
"Oh. Uh … okay. Be back shortly."
Raising his brows in bemusement at how much meaning his wife could put into a single word, a happy Clark left the newsroom, tugging on his tie. He could hardly wait to get back …
Henderson came down the steps of the courthouse, a grim smile on his face, and headed for his car. In his hands were a sheaf of documents that were exactly what he'd asked for, and now he was going to use them — rather later in the day than he had hoped, thanks to legal delays, but there was still plenty of time left in the morning; with luck, it'd all be over in time for a slightly belated lunch. First, though, he had a not-so-small debt to redeem.
He climbed into the car and drove away. Ten or so minutes later, he pulled up in the car park of a supermarket. His route there from the courthouse had not been straight-forward, including as it did lots of complicated manoeuvres designed to reveal and/or evade possible tails. He hadn't spotted anyone, so the odds were that he was being over-cautious, but he didn't want to take the risk. For the same reason, he got out of his car and went over to a phone booth to make a call. No-one could have known that he was going to use this particular phone — *he* hadn't known until he'd seen it as he drove past a couple of minutes ago — and no-one was close enough to overhear him. If Luthor still managed to find out what was going down, in spite of all his precautions … well, he'd be wasting his time trying to arrest the guy anyway.
He fed the phone and dialled a familiar number. His luck was in, and the call was answered almost immediately — and by the person he was calling.
"Daily Planet. Lois Lane speaking."
"Lane, it's Henderson. This is it. STAR Labs came through for us, and I've got the warrants. If you and Kent want your exclusive, meet me you-know-where in an hour. And if either of you can get in touch with the Big Guy, he'd be more than welcome. I gotta go and get this clambake organised. One hour, right?"
He hung up, only barely hearing Lois' enthusiastic response — "Right!" — and headed for his car.
Lois looked at her watch. It was almost time to go, and Clark still wasn't back from that fire. What on Earth could be keeping him? That fire should be out by now — unless it was a really big one. Or was he still there because there was something suspicious about it? Or …
She grimaced and shook her head. It was all too easy to think of plenty of reasons why he might have been delayed; the fact was, he wasn't there, and it would soon be time to head out to meet Henderson. She knew Clark would want to be in on busting Luthor and, knowing Lex, he might be needed.
Was there any way she could get word to him? For what seemed like the thousandth time, she vowed that they *had* to find a way for her to contact him when he was in the suit … but they hadn't come up with a workable idea yet, and right now was when it was needed. She took a quick look around for Jimmy — that watch of his could be just the thing … *if* he still had it (she couldn't remember) *and* was wearing it today — but for once, he was nowhere to be seen.
'Typical!' Lois snorted to herself. 'The one time I could use a case of Jimmy Interruptus, he's not around!' The fact remained that he *wasn't* around, so she had to come up with something else.
She looked at her watch again and did some hasty calculations. Clark had said that the fire was in a warehouse, which meant that it was probably in the warehouse district ('Duh!' she quipped to herself), which wasn't too far away … so there was a good chance that she could drive down there, find him and let him know what was happening, and they could both get to the LexCorp Tower, either by Jeep or by air, in time to meet Henderson. And if she didn't find him in time, she could still head over to the Tower herself.
It was worth a try, so she grabbed her bag and coat and dived for the elevator.
Luthor lowered the high-powered binoculars with which he had been watching the warehouse burn, savouring its destruction. In spite of the best efforts of the Metro Fire Department and, of course, Superman, the building was almost completely burnt out; certainly, its remains would have to be demolished, and vacant land of that size, in that location, would be extremely valuable.
He finished the cigar that he had enjoyed while waiting for the warehouse roof to collapse — and also for the weapon's power cells to re-charge to their full capacity. Which they had now done, announcing that fact with the same high- pitched whine that had woken him that morning. It was a beautiful sound in its way, he thought as he turned it off; not of itself, but in what it foretold — the final destruction of Superman. For that, he thought he would remember it for the rest of his life.
'And so it begins,' he thought, steeping over to the "telescope". 'Your death awaits, Mr Kent. But first, you must suffer as I have suffered these last few days … and for that, I shall lure you to your doom by eliminating your power base and those fools who are deluded enough to consider themselves your friends. Who knows, I may even have the good fortune to kill your wife and child before I send you to join them in oblivion.'
The sights had long since been aligned with the Daily Planet building, zeroed in with micrometric precision on the floor on which the newsroom was located. Luthor paused for a moment, considering, then set the beam intensity to the same level that the earlier shot had used. 'Yes, better not to destroy them totally. That would be too quick. This way, Kent will come when he hears the cries of distress of his followers, and then I can hit him with full power. Once he is dead, there will be more than enough time to finish the destruction of the building.'
When the elevator that had deposited Lois in the car park rose back to street level, it collected Penny and Alice, who had arrived for their respective lunch "dates" at almost the same time. It turned out that great minds thought alike, because Penny had also had the idea of bringing lunch in to Jimmy so that he'd have more time to enjoy it. She'd been going to ask him if there was anything that he'd particularly like, but she thought that Alice's idea of surprising him with something unusual would be fun, too. She was surprised when Alice suggested that they ask *Clark* where to go, but went along with the idea after hearing the older woman's testimonial to the reporter's expert knowledge. Jimmy had told her that "CK" had been all over the world before coming to Metropolis, so maybe he'd found some really authentic ethnic places.
The elevator doors opened on the normal quasi-chaos that was the newsroom, and the two women stepped out.
Luthor held his finger over the firing button of the weapon and savoured his forthcoming triumph. He took one last look through the target acquisition system at the large windows that let light, air and, on occasions, Superman into the newsroom.
'Farewell, Daily Planet. Perhaps your successors — if any — will learn not to challenge the *true* power in this city.'
To Be Continued …
… in Episode 14, "Stronger Than Me Alone", by Phil Atcliffe
Characters in this episode are copyrighted by DC Comics, December 3rd Production and Warner Brothers. No infringement is intended in any part by the author or the Season 6 group, however, the ideas expressed within this episode are copyrighted (c) 1999 to the author.