By Phil Atcliffe <email@example.com>
Original Air Date: September 26, 1999
Summary: In this electrifying finale to the S5/6 series, it's showdown time for Lex Luthor and Clark Kent … and only one of them can survive. Episode 14 of S6.
PREVIOUSLY ON "LOIS & CLARK, SEASON 6":
"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."
"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!*"
'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.
The next step was to examine the records 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 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.
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 …
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.
This was no game, not now — this was *war!*
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 … '
*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.
Clark was in the middle of editing a short 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.
"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?"
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.'
AND NOW, THE CONCLUSION:
Jimmy Olsen had emerged after a couple of hours in the darkroom, and was now in the conference room, reading Usenet under the guise of doing some research for Donna McIntyre, the financial reporter. He was actually working, although it might not have looked or sounded like it from the way he kept guffawing. He'd been checking out Internet reaction to LexCorp's financial troubles when he spotted a new newsgroup, one of those odd groups that sprung up whenever someone had an axe to grind or wanted to rave about something or somebody. Half the fun of these groups was the silly names that they were given, and this one was a classic, to Jimmy's delight; he sort of collected them, and "alt.bankrupt.lexcorp.flat.broke.busted" was a worthy companion to others that he had run across such as "alt.barney.die.you.monstrosity" and "alt.jadzia-dax.gorgeous. slug.babe".
The people posting to this group were just what Donna wanted to represent the more extreme end of the opinion spectrum, and so Jimmy was having a great time reading their messages. He was going through some of the responses to one post that expounded the theory that LexCorp's impending collapse was inevitable if one considered Marxist-Leninist historical inevitability, and therefore, the revolution was just around the corner. Some of the messages replying to this tract were short, simple and at times abusive; others were considerably longer and tried to debate the original poster's assertions in the light of other socio-economic models. It was fairly heavy stuff, and it took a significant amount of concentration to try to follow the arguments, which was why he didn't hear the door open quietly, and why the first indication that he had company was when a pair of hands covered his eyes and a voice softly cooed, "Guess who?"
The answer to that was easy; he recognised his girlfriend Penny's voice. He gently pried her hands from his eyes and brought them down to kiss lightly. "Hi," he said in a happy voice. "You're early … "
"Just a little," Penny replied, smiling down at him. "There's nothing happening at work, so I took off. Actually, I got here a little while ago, and I've been helping Mrs White. Do you know where Clark Kent is?"
Jimmy noticed Alice perching on the opposite edge of the big meeting table and greeted her, then turned his attention back to Penny. "CK? No, I haven't seen him for … about an hour. He's probably off on a story. Why?"
"Oh, Mrs White and I were going to bring you guys some lunch, so you'd have more time to eat, and Lois says that Clark knows a lot of really good take-out places … but we can't ask him if he's not here, so what would you like for lunch?"
Jimmy thought about that for a moment or two …
… and then, all hell broke loose.
The main windows went first, shattering into millions of pieces. The panes were made of safety glass — had been ever since the bombing five years ago — so the pieces were not deadly, but the force of the explosion that shattered them was enough to propel them across the newsroom like glittering buckshot. Men and women who had been near the windows were unconscious or worse, others bleeding and crying; those further inside were partially shielded from the window glass, but they too were sent flying by the force of the blast — and the second one which followed as Luthor's invisible beam struck furniture in the centre of the newsroom.
Pandemonium reigned. The desks hit by the beam had shattered, sending vicious splinters flying everywhere. The computers on those desks had exploded, adding glass, hot metal and molten plastic to the shrapnel. Several desks, chair and cabinets near the central area of destruction were on fire. No-one was on their feet; the lucky ones had ducked or been fortunate enough to merely be knocked down, and escaped with a few bruises; the rest — most of the staff — were hurt, and their screams and cries mingled with the roar of the fire, the hiss and crackle of the destroyed or damaged electrical equipment, the sound of the sprinkler system coming on and the clamour of the fire alarm to form a truly hellish cacophony.
Inside the conference room, Jimmy had seen the main windows go and instinctively yanked Penny off her feet, yelling "Get down!" and rolling off his chair to cover her. He was barely in time, for the first shock wave had rattled the conference room windows, and the second one shattered them completely. These windows were *not* safety glass, and they broke into flying razor-edged shards that cut a lethal swathe across the room.
The glass and the blast that followed it missed Jimmy and Penny, who were sheltered by the desk at which he had been sitting. The shock wave knocked the computer off the desk, but they barely noticed; the tower unit was left hanging at the end of its network cable, bumping into Jimmy's leg, but not with any force, and the screen didn't break, so the computer's fall made more noise than anything else.
They got to their feet slowly, dumbfounded by the sudden transformation of the newsroom into a battle zone. If it came to that, their own surroundings weren't much better; the big conference table had overturned and all the other furniture was scattered about the room in varying degrees of dismemberment. They stared at the chaos outside and inside for a few moments and then, almost simultaneously, remembered Alice. They cast worried glances around the room, but couldn't see her anywhere at first; then, to their great relief, Penny spotted a leg behind the overturned table. Alice had thrown herself to the floor at Jimmy's cry, so that most of the glass had missed her, but then the table had flipped over and she was pinned under it; she wasn't in any great pain, although she did have a few cuts on the one leg that was exposed.
Jimmy got as good a grip as he could on the table and threw his weight against it. It was too heavy to right, but he managed to lift it off Alice long enough for her to move out from under it with some help from Penny. Once she was free, he let it go again and it crashed back onto the flattened chairs and the wall. Penny helped Alice to her feet, and then bent down to check the bleeding on her leg.
Alice swayed a little until Jimmy came over to support her. She leaned on him slightly and murmured, "Thank you, Jimmy … for the warning *and* the help."
"Hey, no problem," he replied. "You were lucky not to get hurt more; you must have ducked behind the table pretty quickly. Good reflexes for … " He shut up, realising that what he was about to say might not be very tactful.
Not that Alice minded. "For someone my age?" she quipped, knowing quite well that the answer was yes. "You don't get to *be* my age without developing them — not in the news business, you don't. The stories I could tell you … " she laughed, her voice wavering a little. "That's what I get for marrying Perry White … "
'Yep, that's what I get,' she thought. 'That and all those stories, and a whole lot more. And just what do you think of that, Alice?'
She had no time to answer that question, because their present situation intruded — that is, a nearby door crashed open and a familiar voice boomed out.
"Judas Priest! What hit us?" Perry bellowed. Not really expecting an answer, he cast his eyes around the newsroom, seeking order in the chaos; what he saw was a mess of broken glass, smashed furniture and equipment, fire, smoke, water and sparks, with dazed, hurt people — *his* people — in the middle of it. He was about to charge out and help when he noticed the floor was wet … and he went cold as he thought of another possible danger.
"Turn the power off before somebody gets electrocuted!"
To Jimmy, this was a call to arms; not that he needed one, but things were bound to work out if the Chief was on top of the situation. "I'm on it, Chief!" he yelled, dashing out of the conference room and over to the far corner of the newsroom, where the fuse box for the floor was. He'd guessed what Perry was worried about, but he was sure that where he needed to go was safe, because there were people lying around and they weren't being shocked — yet.
Jimmy grabbed the main switch for the floor's power and yanked on it. The few remaining lights died … as did the sparks from the smashed electronics, and he sighed in relief. Now the main problem was the burning furniture; the sprinklers were controlling the fire, he thought, but it wasn't out yet, and injured people were too close to it. He grabbed a nearby extinguisher from the wall and began to play it where he could, trying to stop the flames from spreading, especially if it looked like they could move towards anyone on the floor.
Which is how he came to discover Ralph, unconscious and bleeding, lying between what had once been two desks. He used up the rest of the extinguisher's contents to make sure (he hoped) that the fire wouldn't move their way, and bent down to look at the prone reporter.
What he found was not good; Ralph was pale and clammy — as much of him as was not covered in blood — and was showing all the classic signs of massive blood loss. The cause wasn't hard to find; wicked-looking wooden splinters had hit him in the arm and in the belly, and he was bleeding profusely from the wounds.
Jimmy looked around; he had to stop this bleeding somehow, especially the gut wound, but to do that, he needed some proper equipment — a pressure bandage, for preference. Now, where the heck had the first aid kits got to? Their locations were prominently displayed around the newsroom, but it looked as though they'd either been blown away, like everything else, or people had taken them already.
Damn! He *needed* one of those kits, right now. "Hey!" he yelled, "Man down over here! Somebody get me a first aid kit!" Seconds passed, and there was no sign that anyone had even heard him through the discordant chaos of the fire and all the other noise in the room. 'Oh, Geez,' he thought, 'Ralph's gonna *die* if I don't do something — but what?' Inspiration failed to strike — except, perhaps, just a little. With only his bare hands and, maybe, a handkerchief or his shirt to stop Ralph from bleeding to death, and no time to go look for a first aid kit, there was only one thing he could do — call for help. Very special help, perhaps the only kind of help that could save Ralph.
It is a prime example of the defence methods by which the human mind tries to protect itself from stress that Jimmy actually spent a moment or two hoping that Lois wouldn't want to get him for violation of copyright or something, before yelling, as loud as he could, "Help! *Superman!!*"
He almost fainted when a calm, familiar voice above him replied, "It's okay, Jimmy. I'm here."
Superman had been x-raying the wreckage of the warehouse, trying to help determine what had started the fire, when he heard the explosions. He'd also been performing the potentially grisly task of looking for casualties. Both searches were proving equally fruitless, which was fine by him; the building was destroyed, but no-one had been hurt, and that was a fair enough trade.
When he arrived, he had recognised the warehouse as being the same one which had mysteriously and inexplicably caught fire last Christmas, and there was no more indication as to what had caused that than for the latest, more serious blaze.
The arson squad had been called in, and first indications were that something odd must have happened. The fire appeared to have started over near one wall — not an outside wall, either — where a wooden roof support and the nearby floorboards had caught alight. Why was anybody's guess; *how* was even more mysterious, for the support posts were thick chunks of hardwood, and they didn't catch fire easily. Like lighting a log fire, it took a fairly strong blaze beforehand to get a piece of wood that size to burn, and even then it did it slowly; but here, one of them seemed to have been the first thing to go up, and it had been almost totally consumed in a very short time.
There were signs that something had come in through the roof, which led to thoughts of petrol bombs and the like, but they wouldn't cause the incredible heat needed to get that post to catch on fire, and not even super-vision could find any traces of an "accelerant" (the petrol or chemicals used to start the fire). A water-soluble chemical like acetone could have been used, but Clark knew how to find even those most elusive of accelerants, and there wasn't any hint of anything like that. It was a mystery.
Then the double *whoompf!* of twin explosions reached his ears, and his head snapped around to zero in on the sound. X-ray and telescopic vision revealed, to his horror, that the sounds were coming from the *Planet building!*
'Lois! Laura!' his mind yelled, his heart leaping. He was about to launch himself into the air, but paused; this might— *would* need more than just himself to help.
A red-and-blue blur flashed through the warehouse, coming to a halt next to the fire chief. "Chief!" Superman snapped, "There've been two explosions at the Daily Planet building. Send some units, and call the bomb squad! Oh, and they'll need ambulances, too. You'd better alert Metro General, as well. I'm on my way there now." And with that, he was gone.
Behind him, the startled fire chief could only look after him and murmur, "Right … " before heading for her engine and the radio.
Clark had the situation assessed by the time he reached the newsroom. He'd seen Lois and Laura — in the Jeep and the day-care centre respectively — and both were okay, if upset, which meant that he could concentrate on helping people without having to worry about his family. What had happened to his friends and colleagues was bad enough.
Super-cold breath took care of what was left of the fire — at least, the obvious flames. There were going to be hot spots in the floor around that central area for a while, and that part of the floor itself had been weakened. He would have checked it over, but Jimmy's urgent yell called him away; assessing the condition of the building could wait until after the people were okay.
Ralph's condition was obvious, as was his need for urgent medical attention. After reassuring Jimmy, he carefully lifted Ralph from the floor. It was tricky: Ralph would have been dead by now if it wasn't for the splinter that caused his belly wound still being in place, and Clark dared not remove it, not even to cauterise the wound with heat vision; on the other hand, he had to be careful that he didn't inadvertently drive it in deeper as he picked the man up. Fortunately, x-ray vision was a big help in situations like these, and he managed to get Ralph into a suitable carrying position without moving the splinter at all, and then he flashed out of the window. Next stop, Metro General and the E.R.
Luthor was frustrated. The weapon had worked perfectly, and the destruction it had caused in the Daily Planet was most gratifying to see … but when Kent was visible, he moved so fast that Lex couldn't get a decent shot at him! He lifted his head from the sights and thought quickly. No, there was no need to worry. This should have been expected; Superman always moved at high speed when he was being a do-gooder, and he would be quite busy helping his followers. Eventually, though, he would slow down, if only to find out from witnesses what had happened. Then … ah, *then* …
Patience. That was what he needed, patience. His triumph was so close that he could almost taste it. This was not the time to ruin everything by losing control of himself. Patience …
Lois was driving out of the underground car park onto the street when the beam struck the Planet building. The blasts that had wreaked so much havoc in the newsroom were mostly directed inwards, but enough noise came out of the now open newsroom windows to alert drivers in the streets below, and the traffic came to a screeching halt while they all rubbernecked to see what had caused it.
Lois knew immediately that the newsroom was involved — the main windows were just *gone*, frames, glass and all. She could see flames and smoke inside, and immediately pulled in to the kerb, jumped out of the Jeep and ran for the building. She didn't bother to notice where she'd parked, and barely remembered whether or not she'd locked the car; never mind tickets or car thieves, her friends were in there — her *daughter* was in there!
She burst through the main entrance, barely pausing to yell at the security guard to call 911, and charged across the lobby and into the day-care centre. A bewildered Mrs Wilson assured her that Laura was okay — *all* the kids were fine, just a little scared — and wanted to know what had happened.
Lois told her what she knew, but had to break off halfway through because Ruth suddenly turned and bellowed to her assistants, "Get ready to evacuate the building! Jane, page the designated helpers for this morning— *not* Lee and Andrea, they're right in the middle of it all; get Paula and Tom instead. And George, if he's there. Mary, you know what to do. Let's *go!*"
As her staff disappeared, Ruth turned back to Lois. "Sorry, Lois, but I've got to get to work. So do you, so get going — and *don't* worry about Laura! We've practised this sort of thing lots of times, and we all know what to do. Your daughter will be fine. Now, scat!"
She bustled away. Behind her, rather bemused at being dismissed so abruptly, yet oddly reassured that her little girl was in good hands, Lois left and headed for the newsroom.
She arrived to a scene of devastation, but one that had hope, for Superman had returned. Not only that, but the less-badly-injured of the newsroom staff had recovered enough from the shock to do things for themselves — specifically, to put into action the plans that Perry had had drawn up for situations like this after the bombing five years ago. She felt like cheering, as mad as that sounded; the Daily Planet might be down, but it wasn't out.
Ever the reporter, Lois just stood and watched for a moment, trying to absorb the atmosphere in the room. Superman was speeding from person to person, and by the way that each man or woman that he left got up and joined in helping others, she could guess that he'd been administering some simple super-first aid — checking wounds for foreign bodies, then using a little heat vision to close and cauterise bleeding — to those people with relatively minor injuries.
The red-and-blue blur finally slowed into the figure of the Man of Steel, and he began to move about more carefully, taking his time to check on each of the remaining few people who were trapped or unconscious. Several times, he waved back would-be helpers, warning them that the floor was unsafe or that they might dislodge something which could fall on someone; a few of them looked offended — if he could walk there, why couldn't they? — until Superman stretched out horizontally in mid-air and they realised that he had been floating the whole time. Their resentment evaporated completely when, once he'd checked out the situation, he was more than happy to accept their help, usually asking them to move their colleague while he lifted or restrained some heavy object.
Lois gave up watching and got her hands dirty — bloody, rather. Her first aid training came to the fore as she examined her injured colleagues; there wasn't a lot she could do, but every little bit counted, and hopefully proper medical help was on its way. It rankled— it *more* than rankled, it was downright infuriating — to be missing out on her exclusive on Lex's arrest, but she was needed here, and so was Clark. Henderson and his men would just have to take their chances.
Hopefully, this wouldn't take too much longer, not with Clark here, and then they could head for the LexCorp Building — always assuming that her car hadn't been towed. It wasn't as though they could be scooped — on the arrest, maybe, but not on why Lex had been arrested and the evidence that proved his guilt.
She teamed up with Pam from Sunday Features, who had managed to find a first aid kit that had been blown off the wall and ended up under an upturned desk. Together, they patched up half-a-dozen people with relatively minor injuries or more serious ones that didn't immobilise them, and sent them on their way out of the building with the help of each other or anyone else who was steady enough on their feet. Clark had x-rayed the building's structure and announced that it was safe, but no-one wanted to trust the elevators; instead, there was a stream of people joining the throng from other floors going down the stairs.
The newsroom was emptying quickly. Lois finished putting an arm into a sling and handed its owner over to one of her colleagues, then went over to where Superman was supporting a file cabinet and a large chunk of window frame; Perry and Jimmy were gently easing an unconscious form from underneath. Lois recognised Alan, a guy from Accounting, someone whom she couldn't remember seeing (or talking to, at least) since last year's Christmas party.
"Is he going to be all right?" she asked, her tone determinedly neutral — partly because she always tried to be careful when speaking to Superman in public, and partly because Alan did not look good at all. He was the last person to need rescuing, though, and that was a relief.
"He should be fine," Superman reassured her after setting his load down with painstaking care. "He's got a mild concussion, I think, but nothing more serious than that and a few bruises. A few days in a good hospital, and he'll be all right."
"That's good news," Perry said, once he'd made Alan as comfortable as he could. "And the Planet's insurance will pick up everyone's medical expenses, or I'll know the reason why not! But what in the name of Sam Hill hit us? Some kind of missile?"
"I have no idea, Mr White," Superman replied. "I didn't see it, only heard the explosions. Two of them."
"Yeah, that would be right," chipped in Jimmy. "I saw it. The windows were smashed in by the first one, and then the desks and stuff blew up."
"That does support the idea of something breaking in through the windows," Superman mused, looking around, "but there's no sign of any remains, and, as big a mess as they've made here, those explosions weren't powerful enough to destroy a decent-sized projectile without leaving something behind — you'd all be dead if they had been — and I can't see anything in the way of debris or chemical residue."
He did see something, though … and it looked familiar. Some of the newsroom furniture was quite old, sturdily made from oak or like woods … and showing very similar burn marks to the supports in the warehouse that he'd just come from! Once again, tremendous heat, far hotter than the fire that he'd seen here a few minutes ago, must have been generated in order to consume or scorch some of the solid chunks of wood that he could see.
He frowned and walked slowly towards the hole where the main windows had been, super-senses on the alert for further tell-tale signs of whatever had destroyed the warehouse and, if he was right, struck at the Daily Planet.
Luthor's face contorted into a feral grin as Superman emerged from the recesses of the newsroom and walked right into his sights. He couldn't have had an easier shot; the fool was standing in full view, facing directly towards him. The target acquisition system beeped, indicating that it had an optical lock-on; appropriately, the target reticule was centred right on that gaudy red-and-yellow S that was so well-known all over the world — and which would soon be obliterated.
With malicious glee, Luthor turned the knob that ran the weapon up to full power, his anticipation rising with the pitch of the muffled sound emanating from within the telescope case, and took a final look at his enemy.
'The games end here … as does the war. *DIE*, Kent!'
The sights, product of almost as many man-years of work as the weapon itself, were accurate; the beam struck Clark squarely in the chest as he continued to examine the remnants of the newsroom windows. He gasped as his torso suddenly felt as though it was on fire — except that being on fire wouldn't bother him, but *this* … this was on a par with the first time he'd been exposed to Kryptonite!
He staggered backwards a couple of steps, his face distorted by the pain. The others noticed this, and would have run to help him had he not called out, "No! Stay back!"
Lois froze in her tracks, though every instinct screamed for her to go to her husband. Perry and Jimmy, slightly slower to realise what was happening, tried to get past, but she blocked them frantically. For his part, Clark was desperate to keep his friends — and, of course, his *wife* — away. He could feel the searing heat of the torrent of energy that was flooding in to strike him, but that was visible only to his super-vision, and knew that an ordinary human unlucky enough to cross it would be consumed in an instant. "Keep back … " he gasped. "Whatever … attacked the Planet … is after *me* now … "
He groaned and his eyes closed as he struggled to resist the awful pain. He dropped to his knees, but the beam followed him, and the pain only spread to other parts of his body. Lois, her eyes bright with sudden, panicky tears, gasped at the sight of him visibly weakening. He needed help— he needed *her*, but she couldn't go to him. All she could do was watch as the man she loved was consumed by some unseen but deadly menace. "Fight it, honey … *Fight* it! Please, Clark … " she whispered, her voice so soft that no-one other than her Superman could possibly have heard it; she could only pray that he was *able* to hear it.
He was. He heard her, and it gave him resolve when his had almost gone. 'Come on, Kent — Lois needs you! This isn't as bad as Kryptonite, so stop acting like it! Get up and take care of it before whoever's behind this gets tired of you and decides to try his toy on someone more entertaining — like, say, Lois!'
The awed eyes of the few people left in the newsroom watched as Superman tensed visibly. Every muscle in a body that was considered by many to be near perfection, if not the ultimate human male form, strained, veins and sinews standing out like thick cables, as the Man of Steel, his jaw set and his face grim with determination, slowly raised himself to his feet. He took a step towards the wreckage of the windows, then another, and another. Then he raised his head and, ignoring the agony that tore at him, focused his attention along the line of sight of the beam that only he could see.
He rose from the floor, slowly moving upwards along the line of the beam, blocking it from reaching any more of the blasted building — or the people within — as his super-vision reached out to reveal the source of this attack … and the one responsible for it.
For blocks around, people held their hands over their ears as that super-shout rang across the city. Luthor himself stumbled back from the sights of his weapon, startled despite himself at the power of the cry — and the rage it held.
Clark saw his chance and "fought fire with fire", unleashing a devastating blast of heat vision. Luthor's "telescope" was perhaps more powerful, but it wasn't invulnerable. Parts of it melted instantly, and then the penthouse was rocked by an explosion. Not as big as the ones that had caused such havoc in the Planet newsroom, but quite enough to reduce the weapon to junk … and one glowing fragment.
With the beam gone, mere seconds should have elapsed before Clark's incredible regenerative powers returned him to peak super-condition … except that they didn't. He felt drained — not powerless or anything like that, but definitely weaker than usual, and he could still feel a sort of tingle from the regions of his body that the beam had struck. He pushed this aside; Luthor had gone too far this time, and he was going to bring him to justice! He smiled grimly and soared away from the Daily Planet — towards the LexCorp Tower.
Behind him, Lois stood stunned for a second. Just a second, though, because Clark's cry had told her everything she needed to know.
'Oh, my God … *Lex!* Of course! Who else would do this?' Her mind, ever keen, immediately began to think of a myriad of other possibilities, but she pushed that aside and turned and ran for the stairs. 'I've got to get over there! Clark might need help — and Henderson! Henderson's got to be warned!'
Fortunately, the evacuation of the building was mostly complete by now, and there were not many people on the stairs, because Lois took the steps three at a time, and would cheerfully have gone over, under or even *through* anyone who couldn't get out of her way in time. As it was, she charged down and out of the main entrance in a headlong rush that was to become legend even at the Daily Planet, an institution that had seen more than its share of such energetic exits.
Outside, the Planet staff were mostly clustered around the building, rubbernecking and chatting as people in that sort of situation do. The emergency services were finally arriving, which caused some of the crowd to move to one side — and Lois raced straight down the middle of the space that they left. She had to check herself when she nearly ran into a slow-moving fire engine, but that delayed her for the barest minimum of time (just long enough for her to wish that she was Ultra Woman again, so that she could toss the darn thing out of her way) and she shot around it and disappeared down the street towards her Jeep.
A uniformed cop had just strolled up to the car and was regarding it in an unfriendly manner, one hand hovering near his ticket pad. Lois didn't waste time arguing with him; she grabbed his radio mike and shoved it in his face. He took it from her indignantly— or, rather, he would have been indignant had he had the time to think. Instead, he had to try desperately to keep up with what Lois was saying as she yelled at him to get on the damn radio and contact Inspector Henderson; warn him that L— the guy he was about to arrest — had just attacked the Daily Planet and should be considered armed and extremely dangerous; tell him that Lane and Kent were on their way, and to watch himself; and there were a bunch of ambulances trying to get to the Planet building, and shouldn't he get his act together and help them do their job rather than waste time gawking at her?
All the while that she was berating the hapless cop, Lois was diving around the Jeep and scrambling into the driver's seat. Her final words — or were they *orders?* — were accompanied by the roar of the engine and a squeal of tyres as she hit the accelerator and sent the car speeding off into the mid-day traffic.
Behind her, a dumbfounded policeman stood with a microphone in one hand and wondered what the heck that had been about? He'd just about managed to follow what she said — at least enough to know that she wanted him to pass on a message to Henderson, one of the big-shot Inspectors from Headquarters. He didn't quite get the bit about someone attacking the newspaper, but the words "armed and extremely dangerous" were a clarion call to any cop. He decided that he'd better make the effort and tell his dispatcher; he only hoped that the Inspector could make sense of the message, 'cause *he* sure couldn't.
The Inspector did make sense of the message, even in the garbled form in which it reached him. He was no reporter, but he was a professional detective, and his investigative skills (if not his writing) would have graced the offices of any news media organisation anywhere, even the Daily Planet. So it wasn't too hard to work out what Lane (he assumed it was Lane from the description) must have meant. He'd caught the 911 call about the explosions at the Planet building, and he'd heard Superman's incredible roar — heck, everyone this side of Gotham City had heard *that!* — so it didn't take much imagination to realise that a warning about a suspect that he was about to arrest being armed and dangerous could only mean that Luthor had got his hands on some new super-weapon and that he and his men were headed into Big Trouble.
There was only one thing to do, and Henderson did it. Mobilising SWAT teams would make him a little late nabbing the perp, but better that than having his men barbecued. Now if only Lane could (or *would*) stay out of trouble …
As Clark flew towards the penthouse, he scanned it to see if Luthor had any other tricks, especially green ones, up his sleeve, but found nothing — not so much as a lead-lined container or secret compartment. What he *did* see, however, was that the living area was deserted and looked as though it had been for some time — days, at least.
Where was Beth? Had Luthor sent her away before launching his attack? That made sense. But then Clark remembered Owen Preece's words, and another, darker set of possibilities came to mind.
Beth had warned Preece of something — presumably that Luthor was going to have him killed — and the man had run. But he'd been caught, and Luthor could have found out about the warning. If he had, then Beth was in big trouble — if she was still alive; Luthor didn't take what he saw as betrayal lightly. Or had Beth found out about Preece's capture and run herself? The reporter in him saw all sorts of intriguing questions to be answered, but that would have to wait. Right now, his immediate priority had to be to deal with Luthor himself; time enough to enquire into Beth's fate after her murderous swine of a husband was locked up!
One last thing to check on before he grabbed Luthor — that weird-looking glowing object that had come out of the wrecked "telescope" when his heat vision had hit it. It was roughly spherical and its outer skin was made from an unusual crystalline material. It had been assembled from two close-fitting halves, but the joint between the pieces of its shell or casing had sprung open, and it was from the gap between the halves that the odd glow, a sort of greenish-orange not unlike an unripe mandarin, was coming.
Clark had never seen anything like it, but the simple fact that it had come from Luthor's zap gun made it potentially important — and dangerous. 'Time to take a good look at it …
'Oh, no … !'
Clark had slowed his flight as he checked on the object, but now he flashed across the remaining distance as fast as possible, swooping down to grab the sphere. For a fraction of a second, he paused to examine the joint in more detail, to see how to close it, then placed one hand on each half of the casing and pushed.
Nothing happened. Surprised, he pushed harder, but the sphere resisted him. He increased the pressure he was applying … and again … and again … and still it wasn't closing! Finally, Clark was pitting all his strength against the strange crystal, and he couldn't close the gap between the pieces! Worse, the energy radiating from the sphere was affecting him somehow; he could feel an irritation — a peculiar sort of prickle, rather how he imagined sunburn to feel — everywhere that the glow touched him, and it was getting stronger.
And so, he realised, was the glow.
"Sunburn" or not, he *had* to close the sphere, so he ignored the irritation as he had the pain from the complete weapon and focused his concentration on that. He succeeded so well in blocking out the rest of the world that he barely felt the impact as something struck his back and was smashed into pieces.
Once it did register, he turned to see Luthor standing a few feet away, panting and holding the broken remains of a chair. "What the hell do you think you're doing, Luthor?" Superman snapped, "Can't you see I'm busy saving your worthless life?"
Luthor let out a high-pitched, breathless laugh — or was it a sob? — that momentarily chilled Clark's blood. He'd dealt with enough people at the limits of their mental and physical capacities to recognise that that single sound carried a warning. It was the sound of someone who'd pushed himself, or been pushed, way beyond the bounds of normality. There was hysteria in that cry; and exhaustion, both mental and physical; and, above all, more than a little insanity. If Clark had heard anyone else make that noise, he'd have advised them to seek help, and soon; here and now, though, with Luthor, all he knew was that a lot of people were in great danger, and the man who'd put them in that danger was past reasoning with.
"Save my life?" Luthor half-screamed, "*Why?!*" He threw down the remnants of the chair and peered at the Man of Steel with mad eyes that blazed with hatred. "Damn you, Kent, you've taken from me everything that I've ever cared about — why save my *life?*"
He seemed to notice the glow from the sphere for the first time, and his gaze moved from it to the wreckage of the "telescope"; he stared wordlessly at that for a few moments, then began to prowl around the room, his arms waving wildly as he ranted in a voice that began as an unsettling whisper but grew to an hysterical yell.
"What does it take to kill you, Kent? My Kryptonite cage couldn't do it; the quantum disruptor didn't work; the Presses' quantum disbander was no better, even when they cut you off from sunlight; the Army's Kryptonite gas killed the other aliens, but not *you*; even my greatest creation, an improved disruptor that uses the same frequencies as Kryptonite, failed. *What does it take?*"
Superman paid little attention to him, being far more concerned with the sphere in his hands and the glow from it, which was continuing to brighten. Luthor noticed this, and the indifference was the final straw. Unheeded, he began to hurl anything he could get his hands on at the nearby caped figure. Books, papers, objets d'art, a humidor, even parts of his computer; if he could lift it and throw it, it became part of the hail of objects flying towards Superman.
For all the effect his barrage had, Luthor might as well have been throwing melted snowballs, but Clark didn't need the distraction. "Knock it off, Luthor!" he barked. "Your precious creation here is well on its way to generating a nuclear explosion, and I'm the only thing stopping it from going up and destroying everything in a half-mile radius!"
"*Let it!*" Luthor screamed, continuing to fling whatever came to hand. "Better that than having to live in poverty after you've stolen everything I own or love! You thieving son of a … "
Clark didn't wait for him to finish the epithet; he didn't know what the madman was talking about, but the danger from the sphere was more important than wild accusations. Bracing one half of the casing against his body so that he could maintain the pressure on the other half with one hand, he shot forward at super-speed, shrugging off the flying missiles as the insignificant annoyances that they were. Reaching Luthor, he raised his free arm and, almost casually, flicked him in the chin with his index finger. Lex was flung into the air and across the room, performing something like a back-somersault before landing heavily on the couch, out cold.
'Hmmm … ' thought Clark, amused despite everything, 'That worked even better than the time I did it to that cyborg boxer of Sam's.'
He wasted no more time on that, though, returning to the problem of the sphere. For all his efforts, the gap between the two halves was no smaller, and the glow was continuing to brighten. The radiation from it was getting stronger too, the original prickle on his skin now starting to become a burn.
'Admit your limitations, Kent,' he thought. 'Luthor said that that thing used Kryptonite frequencies; that must be why it's affecting you. And you're only going to get weaker; if you can't close it up, get rid of it!'
Put like that, there was no choice in the matter. Clark turned to the balcony, ready to fly his menacing load into space where it could be allowed to destroy itself safely …
… except that he couldn't take off!
'Oh, God … I can't fly! This radiation must be stealing my powers like Kryptonite does. What do I do now?'
All Clark could think was that he must close up the sphere, or thousands— *millions*, even, of people would die … but his super-strength was leaving him. Once it was gone …
Other than on the penthouse level, it was a normal working day at LexCorp Tower. There was an inevitable air of tension about the place, and perhaps a few more absences than usual, but that was to be expected with the current uncertainty regarding the company's future. In any case, if employees wanted there to be any chance at all that their next pay packet would arrive as usual, they needed to be at their desks, benches or counters, hard at work.
And so they were when the relative peace of the day was interrupted by a muffled boom from above. Most ignored it, but those few whose job it was to deal with such things immediately checked their alarm systems and cameras, but nothing showed up — no fires, no smoke, and no intruders anywhere that they could detect. Nor was anything visible from the outside of the building.
One Security officer, who hadn't been with LexCorp long, wanted to ask the penthouse for authorization to view the tapes from the cameras there, but was hastily restrained by his supervisor. The Boss would *not* appreciate being interrupted "unnecessarily" at a time like this, particularly since his secretary (who was working real odd hours lately — must be something to do with all the trouble Upstairs) wasn't due in for an hour or so. Besides, couldn't he tell from the status board that the penthouse cameras weren't turned on? The Boss did that sometimes when he wanted complete privacy. Forget about the penthouse; if something was wrong *there*, Mr L. would let them know soon enough.
Calm settled on the Tower once more, but not for long. It was shattered a second time when the Evacuate Building alarm went off.
On every floor, people looked at one another in amazed consternation. They'd all heard the alarm before, when they began work at the Tower and when it was regularly tested, but was this real? And if it was, what had set it off?
The people in the Security office had no more idea than anyone else, but they did know that this wasn't an unscheduled test or anything like that, and that, despite the fact that they couldn't detect anything that could have caused the alarm, the computer was indicating that this was a Code Red emergency, the highest level in the system, and one which it should be almost impossible to trip accidentally. They tried to contact the penthouse, but the Boss didn't answer.
The supervisor who'd stopped the new guy from calling the penthouse now looked sick, but didn't waste time dwelling on his mistake — if it was one. Whatever was happening Upstairs, this alarm could be real, and that meant that it was his job to get the people in the building out safely. Nobody knew exactly what was going on, but he'd rather take his lumps for interrupting the working day than for letting people get hurt by *not* doing anything. He reached for a headset-and-mike and turned on the PA.
"Your attention, please. This is not a test. Repeat, this is *not* a test. Please leave the building in an orderly fashion and proceed to the assembly point indicated on the notice in the office in which you are now located. Staff on or below the 15th floor should use the stairs; staff on level 16 or above may use the elevators at this time. That is all."
The building's PA system was, naturally, top-of-the-range, so it surprised a few employees that the announcement concluded with a most peculiar noise, like a cross between a white noise hiss and a feedback squeal — and one or two of the more imaginative people said that it gave them the creeps because it sounded for all the world like an insane giggle.
They forgot about it, though, in the rush to leave. LexCorp, like all large organisations, was required by law to have detailed and comprehensive plans for a situation such as this, and to hold practice drills on a regular basis so that employees could become familiar with the correct procedures. This it did, and the plans and drills had the desired effect — mostly.
Unfortunately, a minority of people in any stressful situation will have a tendency to over-react, and the population of the Tower, larger than that of many a small country, had its fair share of these. Add to this an alarm system that went overboard on the loud klaxons and bright flashing lights, and the extra excitement of a *real* evacuation rather than a drill was enough to produce a panic that started with a handful of people, but spread like the proverbial wildfire through the leaving crowds for no real reason, bringing chaos where there should have been order. What began as an calm, if slightly nervous evacuation soon degenerated into groups of people struggling desperately to get out of the building before they-knew-not-what happened.
In the midst of all the panic and noise, Lois forced her way into the Tower lobby, fighting against the crowds of agitated staff heading for the exits. A pair of security officers blocked her path; she tried to dodge, but one of them grabbed her arm and, seeing that she didn't even have a visitor's badge, began to bluster and issue peremptory orders, pointing back the way she'd come.
'I don't have *time* for this!' she mentally screamed. These two clowns were obviously not going to help her, and she *had* to get past them, so there was no point in being subtle. The bozo holding her promptly received a knee right where it hurt the most. As he began to fold up, she chopped his wrist with her free hand and pulled loose from him. A quick two-handed blow to the side of the head sent him sprawling across the room. He collided heavily with his partner, bringing the other man down and slamming him into a wall as he fell.
Lois didn't wait to see whether either of them got back up. She turned and dived past the group of watching office workers whose way out had been blocked by the falling guards, then skidded around a corner into the corridor that led to the penthouse elevator. One or two of the men at the back of the group of would-be escapees — where they hadn't been able to see much of what had happened — made half-hearted attempts to stop her, but one look at the fury on her face and the fire in her eyes, and they kept their hands to themselves.
As she raced on towards the elevator, she snatched glimpses of the offices that she passed, all the while yelling for Superman at the top of her voice, desperately trying to make herself heard over the raucous alarms. No-one was there to answer, though, and the penthouse elevator, providentially open and waiting for her, was equally empty, so all she could do was worry as it whisked her to the top of the building. Where *was* he? And where was Lex? Why the evacuation? What was going on? *Where was Clark?*
Below, at street level, the elevator system controls switched to "Locked" mode, and a strange sound might have been audible behind the klaxons — a chuckle?
The guards eventually managed to get to their feet. It took them a while, though, because they were continually being knocked back down by other members of staff, all of whose sole interest was to get out of the building and as far away from it as possible. Once they *were* finally upright, they looked around for the woman who'd just flattened them, but she was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the lobby was empty, everybody else having done what they were instructed to do — that is, they'd left.
Despite their own intense wish to get the heck out of there, the two men ran after their assailant. They'd been delayed too long, though, and she was long gone. Only thing was, where had she gone? Nowhere that they could see, unless she was hiding in one of the offices. She sure hadn't taken the penthouse lift; that was locked, as usual when the Boss was in residence, and only someone with top-level clearance could use it.
The two men looked at each other, silently communing against the background of flashing lights and blaring klaxons. Both were thinking the same thing: 'This place could be about to go up. Is it worth risking getting killed for the sake of one crazy broad — and one who's just decked us both, at that?' It didn't take them long to reach the obvious conclusion: 'Nah … ' They turned and ran for the exit. The "crazy broad" would have to take her own chances.
Lois charged out of the elevator on the penthouse level and was confronted by an eerie light coming from the room at the end of the passage — the study. This brought her to a momentary halt. Somehow, she knew — *that* was where Clark must be. But what on Earth was causing that weird glow?
She ran through the deserted outer office and threw open the door, panting, to behold a sight that could only be described as uncanny. The glow came from an orange-green ball of light about a foot across, which bathed the entire room in an unearthly, near-blinding glare. Superman was holding it in his hands and seemed to be straining against it somehow. His face was contorted with effort, as though he was exerting all his strength, and he was … *sweating?*
"Cl— Superman!" she cried. "What's going on? What *is* that thing? What are you doing?"
"Lois!" he yelped, startled. He raised bewildered, almost panic-stricken eyes to hers for a second, but then just as quickly turned back to the thing in his hands. In the instant in which he had looked up, the light from the fireball had increased in intensity, and his face resumed the strained grimace that it had had when she had entered — only now, Lois thought she could detect the beginnings of … desperation?
"What is it, Clark?" she asked as she slowly crossed the room to him, her every sense alert and her mind filled with sudden fear, but with also a iron determination not to show it. He didn't look up again, presumably to avoid a repetition of whatever had happened the last time, which she could understand. He didn't answer, either, but turned away so that his back was to her … and *that* scared her.
"Clark … " she called softly, "What's going on? Honey, *please* … talk to me."
She had reached him by now, and laid one hand on his shoulder before trying to go around him so that she could see his face. He didn't react to her touch, but as soon as she moved to one side, he turned with her so that all she could see was his hunched back and the cape with its golden shield. She fell back a step in shock, not really expecting that, despite his earlier retreat. This new alarm was short-lived, however, as he finally managed to gasp out, "Lois … stay behind me, *please* … "
She let out a sigh of relief that she hadn't realised she was holding in; he had a *reason* for "rejecting" her— well, of course he did! Whatever had made her think otherwise? She still needed to know what was happening, and especially what that ball of fire was and why he was so worried about it, but she stayed silent, knowing now that he'd heard her but had to take his time answering.
And, eventually, he did answer her, though every word seemed to be ripped from him, as if it took the utmost effort for him to speak — which, she began to realise as she heard him out, was pretty much the case.
"Lois … please," he rasped, "You've got to get out of here … quickly!"
"What?" she yelped. "Why?"
"This … thing … I'm holding … is part … of the weapon Luthor attacked the Planet with … It's like … the quantum disruptor … only worse. I … destroyed it … but the casing … of the field generator … burst open. There's a … runaway chain reaction going on … in here … and when it gets … to a critical level … the generator … will explode … "
"Well, get rid of it!" Lois cried, still not understanding.
"I … can't. Luthor … made the disruptor … to kill me. Its … radiation … is like Kryptonite … and it's robbing me … of my powers. I … can't fly … and I'm gradually losing … my strength and invulnerability."
Lois gasped in horror, and Clark looked around at her as best he could without exposing her to the radiation from the sphere. "Lois … *please* … you've got to get *out* of here! I'm the only reason … this thing hasn't blown up … already … and I don't know … how much longer … I can hold it … together. When it blows … it'll destroy … this building and … most of its neighbours. Go … go to the Planet — that … should be far enough away. You'll … be safe there.
"Lois — *go*, please! I'll keep … this thing from going critical … for as long … as I can … but you've got to go … *now!* Warn … everyone you can. Re—remember me to Laura … and tell her … I love her … and never forget … that I … will always … love … *you* … "
He fell silent, all his strength of will and body needed to stave off the impending disaster for as long as he could, so that she - - his wife, friend, love, soul mate — could escape and survive. Lois just stood and stared, for a moment unable to comprehend the magnitude of the tragedy facing her.
'No … this *can't* be happening. Not to Clark. I can't lose him like this … not so soon!'
But she could — and she *was* losing him! She had to leave — for Laura's sake — and he would stay … and *die*, so that she and everyone she could warn would have a chance to live. Because he had to; because he was a hero; because he was *Clark* …
Lois choked down a sob that came from the furthest depths of her soul, and ran to him. She didn't care about the radiation; she could *not* leave him without one last chance to hold him — one last embrace that she knew she would remember for the rest of her life. How could she forget, when it would be all that she would have to sustain her through the long, lonely years to come? She wrapped herself around him in the fiercest, most frantic grip she could manage. Her eyes were closed and her face crumpled in painful sobs as she held him to her, trying desperately to forget, just for a very few seconds, that she was going to have to leave him … leave him to die.
Clark's voice had gradually weakened and faded as he spoke to her earlier, and she didn't really expect to ever hear it again, so it was a shock to her when he said, quietly and a little surprised, but with all the calm strength that she had come to know and expect from him, "Lois … what are you doing?"
Lois didn't— *couldn't* reply, but she raised her head, eyes full of tears, at the unexpected but commanding sound. "Never mind," he went on, his tone cool and confident, "Just … keep doing it, okay? Don't let go."
Lois was totally bewildered by this sudden change in manner, and had no idea what he supposed she was doing, but not letting go of Clark was one thing she thought she could manage, even when he uncurled from his hunched-over posture to stand straight and tall, the way Metropolis— the *world* — was used to seeing him. She didn't dare let herself hope what this might mean, so she blanked her thoughts and concentrated on feeling Clark's beloved body pressed against her; the soft smoothness of his cape and the subtle changes in texture of the shield; the fantastic strength of his alien, but so human muscles, and the incredible easy control under which it was kept — strength which, to her surprise, seemed to grow and grow as she held him.
She was behind him still and couldn't see what was happening to the fireball, but somehow she *knew* that he was managing to overcome the forces that had defied him before. She didn't know how or why, but she could *feel* the two halves of the sphere coming together, and with it, the intensity of the fire within dying as they did so.
Despite her fears, hope soared inside her. He was doing it! Clark— *Superman!* — was winning this battle. He was going to save the city— he was going to *live!*
Lois had shut her eyes again in order to concentrate on these extraordinary feelings, but she opened them just in time to see the orange-green glow fade and die. Superman carefully eased his grip on the crystal globe, moving his hands so that the two halves could separate by the merest fraction of an inch, alert for any reappearance of the fireball … but nothing happened. The raging sphere of energy was gone, smothered out of existence by the fantastic strength of the Man of Steel.
He sagged with relief, letting out a long, heart-felt sigh. Lois waited a few seconds, then gently turned him to face her and wrapped her arms around him again, but this time joyfully, and covered his mouth with her own.
A long, glorious time later, she managed to stop kissing him (*and* catch her breath) for long enough to say happily, "You *did* it, Clark! You did it!"
"*We* did it, honey. I don't know how, or why, but when you touched me … it was like I was recharged. All my strength, all the energy that I'd expended, fighting to hold the sphere together, came flooding back, and I *knew* that I was able to close it up. After that … it was simple. It took a lot of effort, but I wasn't worried. With you holding me … it was just a matter of finishing the job. And we did."
Lois stared at him, amazed by his words. She could tell that he meant what he said, but she didn't have the faintest idea how she could have been of help. She'd just wanted to hold him one last time, but he seemed to think that she'd saved the day — somehow.
"Clark … I didn't do anything. I just … couldn't leave you." And then she grinned, mystification replaced by deviltry. "It was just as well I didn't, wasn't it?"
Clark smiled back at her — a rueful, lop-sided smile. Trust Lois to do the *right* wrong thing. He'd pleaded with her to leave before they both were killed; instead, she'd risked radiation poisoning to express her love for him — and by doing that, saved them both, *and* a large chunk of Metropolis. She was never going to let him forget this …
Meanwhile, Lois was frowning in thought, trying to understand how she'd "helped" Clark. After a few moments, an idea struck her; her head cocked to one side, and Clark could almost see the thoughts race around inside her mind. "Hmmm … maybe my body picked up some of your powers — not much, but enough to make the difference — when your soul was in it. Or *my* soul brought them with me when we were switched back. Or I've had just a little of Ultra Woman's powers all this time, but never needed them before — because we never did find out if Kryptonite would have affected me. Or maybe … "
Clark shook his head, grinning widely, and stopped the torrent of speculation with a soft, slow, loving kiss. "I don't care where that extra strength came from," he murmured when their lips finally parted, "What's important is that it took both of us to save the city. I couldn't do it by myself, but with you … "
He said no more, for there was no need. Their lips met, and all that either cared about for that moment was that they were together.
Luthor came back to consciousness slowly. He was lying face-down in an awkward and decidedly uncomfortable position on some sort of padded surface, and his jaw ached horribly. It took him some time to realise that the "surface" was the leather upholstery of a couch — the couch in his office, he remembered. The memory of how he'd got there, and what had happened to his jaw, followed hard on that, and a sudden flush of angry mortification swept through him.
With it came astonishment, which only made the shame inside him more bitter. Why was he still alive? The "nuclear explosion" Kent had warned him of ought to have put him out of his misery by now — *and* taken that damned alien with him — unless … unless he'd managed to stop it somehow! Luthor cringed inside at the thought that Super— *Kent!* — had yet again saved his life. Saved it so that he could spend the rest of that life in prison— in a *cage!*
In his mind, Luthor screamed, howling his fury and humiliation to the universe, to the non-existent gods who had *still* managed to send one of their number to destroy him, but to the outside world, he was motionless and silent. Despite the force of his anguish, he couldn't make a sound and could barely move. He forced himself to ignore the throb of his jaw and to partly open his eyes, but the sight that greeted them was not worth the effort — Superman, locked in a clinch with Lois!
Another wave of rage burned through him, and this one brought with it full consciousness and a measure of strength; not as much as he would have normally, but enough, he hoped, to give him a chance to escape. Kent had won this battle; LexCorp was bankrupt and he himself would soon be marked as an attempted murderer — at the very least. The "choice" was between being a hunted fugitive or a prisoner, and the latter was something he did not care to repeat. Escape was all that he could hope for now; that, and the prospect of rebuilding his power, basing it in the underworld as he had planned to do when first resurrected four years ago. Kent may have defeated him — for now — but the war would go on.
Seeing that his two foes were still wrapped up in each other, Luthor slowly rose from the couch, taking the greatest of care to move as silently as his body, its muscles shaky and cramped from their sojourn in unconsciousness, would allow; his biggest danger was Kent's super-hearing, but fortunately, the fool was too wrapped up in canoodling with his wife to notice. It amazed Luthor. 'That is why I *will* defeat you, Kent. No woman is worth *that* much …
Every step that he took towards the study door was a source of both fear and wonder, a deadly danger and a miracle. He approached the desk and paused for a moment by it, his mind whirling as he evaluated yet another danger — or opportunity.
He reached over and silently lifted Alexander's sword from where he had left it earlier. Yes, he would take this. The most valued of all his possessions, this symbol of power and determination would inspire him to new and greater heights, once he had escaped. LexCorp was dead, but the organisation that he would
build would come to dwarf it, and this sword would be its symbol. Forced to operate in secrecy by the "laws" of lesser men, he would nonetheless have the city— the *world* — know of the power that he wielded. The power of life and death; the power that none would dare defy — the power of the Sword.
A sound came from behind him, and he froze. But when he was not instantly immobilised and whisked away to be presented to the police, it became evident that Kent and Lois were yet to notice him and were merely talking. 'Lovers' talk, no doubt — idiots!' He would have resumed his stealthy creep to safety, but his attention was caught by something that Lois said — and Kent's reply was incredible!
"Come on, let's get out of here," Lois had murmured in a disgustingly sultry voice, one which carried despite being meant for one pair of ears and no more. "Henderson should be outside by now, so let's dump Lex with him and get back to the Planet and sort out how we're gonna write this up. I wanna get you home, fly-boy … "
"Okay," Kent had replied happily, and yet somehow somehow resigned (to what?) at the same time. "But let's tie Luthor up and invite the cops up here to take him away. Closing that field generator, even with your help, took just about everything I had — that and the Kryptonite radiation it was giving off. I didn't realise it at the time, because I was too focused on what I was doing — and you — but I think my powers are gone for a while. It's just like it was at our first Corn Festival together; right now, I'm Clark Kent, not Superman."
It took Luthor a moment to take in the incredible implications of what Kent had just said. No powers? The fool was at his mercy! He'd seen an opportunity in taking the sword as he went to leave, but this … this was almost beyond the bounds of imagination! He turned to seize the opportunity, and savoured the impending joy of victory — a victory that had seemed to be far in the future mere seconds ago. Almost as sweet were the words with which he would tell his enemies of their folly, shattering their complacence before he killed them. He smiled a smile of pure evil before calling to his victims, "How very convenient."
The couple jumped apart and whirled to see Luthor standing a few feet away, sword in hand and malevolence in every aspect. Clark would have said something, but Lex got in first. "How quickly the fortunes of war can change. Mere moments ago, I was unconscious and helpless, and now … now, the great Superman — ah, but you aren't Superman any more, are you? No, as you said yourself, at the moment you're merely Clark Kent, an ordinary man. An ordinary, *unarmed* man — quite helpless, and soon to be dead!"
"Don't be so sure, Luthor. You thought I was helpless once before, you might recall. And you weren't the first; of course, the *last* maniac who thought he could take me one-on-one just because I didn't have my powers ended up dead!"
"Spare me the useless bravado, Kent! Your alien abilities are all that have thwarted me in the past; without them, you're just another member of the rabble, to be crushed like the insect you are! You don't deserve the honour of dying by my hand, of being killed by this sword, but your hypocritical effrontery in stealing my property has left me little choice but to deal with you personally."
Clark looked baffled by Luthor's repeated accusation of theft; Lois, who hadn't heard Lex's earlier rantings, was even more so. "What are you talking about, Lex?" she cried, astonished and angry, "The only person around here who's stolen anything is *you!*"
"Ah, my dear Lois," Luthor replied smoothly — though his eyes only left Superman to flicker to her for the briefest fraction of a second. "I'm surprised at you. Can't you even admit your husband's guilt when no-one else can hear it? Or did he not tell you of his surprisingly clever plan — just not quite clever *enough* — to destroy my corporation? Hmmm … perhaps he didn't trust you not to interfere. I can understand why …
"But that doesn't matter. You may have stolen my life's work, Kent, but you have not defeated me. I must thank you, though, for confirming my opinion of the human condition — or, in your case, the alien equivalent. You pretend to be the great altruistic hero, 'sans peur et sans reproche', but, when faced with an enemy that you cannot overcome physically — not and retain your fraudulent public image — you abandon your Galahad pose for the more human methods of Mordred."
"You're sick," Lois snapped. "And paranoid. Clark hasn't done anything to your precious company. He doesn't steal — and even if he did, he wouldn't have *had* to do anything to it lately. LexCorp has been falling apart, all by itself — or don't you read the Daily Planet?"
"Well, well … " mused Luthor, amused. This new insight into the supposed hero and his "perfect" marriage was fascinating. He wondered what other cracks he might find in their outwardly smooth facade, and decided to probe a little more. Kent was at his mercy, so why not indulge himself for just a short while? "So you didn't tell her after all, Kent. Were you afraid that she would give the game away? Or were her independence and stubbornness simply too much for you?
"Come now, my dear," he continued, addressing Lois, though his eyes and the point of the sword never wavered from Superman, "You can't seriously believe that I would allow LexCorp to collapse from something as mundane as bad management? No, all the company's troubles have been caused quite deliberately, and very cleverly, by your husband. I congratulate you, Kent; even after all this time, I underestimated you. I shan't do so again — for what little remains of your life."
Lois had to admit that Lex was right; she had been as surprised as anyone to hear of the corporation's financial troubles. The Lex she had known years ago would have fired half the staff before things had become anything like that bad. But if what he said about the company's collapse was right, and Clark hadn't been behind it — which he hadn't — then who *had?*
While she thought that over, Clark took up the conversation. "I don't know what you're talking about, Luthor. I haven't done anything to LexCorp. Why would I need to? The police have more than enough evidence to put you behind bars without any need to hurt all the people who depend on the company for their livelihood. Even if you hadn't tried to kill me and everyone else in the Planet building."
"Kent, you disappoint me. Does your fawning public mean so much to you that you cannot even own up to your crimes in front of their victim? Or has employing underhanded means to attack me so corrupted you that you dare not emulate Shakespeare's Don John and claim, 'I am a plain-dealing villain'?"
"Well, no matter; we both know that you could never have maintained your hero pose *and* brought me down without resorting to chicanery. No, you chose to shackle your real power to the adulation of the mob, and only by moving outside their petty laws could you hope to successfully oppose me. After all, mine is — or was, and will be again — the only power on Earth that exceeds your own."
Lois snorted in disgust — the *ego* of the man! "Don't kid yourself, Lex! For all your so-called power, you were never as dangerous as Lord Nor, and Kal-El beat him. You pride yourself on your scheming, but you could never rival Tempus that way, and Superman and I beat *him!* Your criminal empire was never as big as Intergang, and Lane and Kent put the Churches away. You aren't even as *insane* as Jason Trask, and *Clark Kent* beat him! Without any super-powers!
"In fact, take away your money and a few of your flunkies, and what's left is pretty darn second-rate!"
Luthor's eyes narrowed and his voice filled with honeyed contempt. "Ah, Lois, my love, how little you know of what could have been yours to share. It could still be, were you to come to your senses and abandon this … *alien* for a man worthy of you. With you by my side, and with your daughter to raise — which, rest assured, *will* happen; I shall not fail to obtain her a second time — the world could be mine. I still love you, you know … "
Lois took a step backwards and turned to Clark, who had simultaneously moved to get between her and Lex. He was as appalled by Luthor's words as she — and angry.
"You don't know what love *is*, Luthor!" he growled. "Remember what you told me when you had me in that cage: 'I love Lois, I really do. But she's just a little bit too independent, don't you think? I'll take care of that.' That's not love, that's *greed* — which isn't surprising, coming from you! It's the only emotion you understand. Even your supposed passion for Lois was never anything more than the desire to add her to your collection — and *that* was drug-induced! Without Miranda's pheromones, you'd have cared no more for Lois than for any of your other women; she'd have been one more plaything to use and discard, just like all the rest!
"Love means accepting someone for who and what they are. Lois isn't a … a suit from a tailor that you try on for size and throw back in the man's face if it isn't a perfect fit or you don't like the material! *I* love Lois — *all* of her, even the parts that drive me screaming up the wall with anger sometimes; even the part of her that agreed to marry *you!* You couldn't do that; you don't have it in you! You're too damn selfish!
"What about your own wife? Remember her? The woman who helped you regain your position in society? If it hadn't been for her, you'd still be hiding from the law, afraid to show your face in public — and what thanks does she get? Have you killed her already, or are you keeping her in reserve in case Lois turns you down again?"
Lois went white — where *was* Beth? — but Luthor only looked perplexed. Clark kept talking:
"As for your insane plans for Laura … ! You monster, you'll get your dirty hands on my daughter over my dead body!"
"That's exactly what I had in mind, Kent!" With that, Luthor lunged.
Lois found herself unceremoniously shoved to one side by her husband. She hit the floor and rolled as Clark leaped backwards to dodge Lex's first thrust and the savage slashes and cuts that followed it. She would have been annoyed, but she realised that, as usual, Clark's first thought was for her safety — and that she would have been in his way if he hadn't pushed her away.
She raised her head to see Clark fending off Luthor's blows with anything he could find. A chair didn't last long. A standing lamp did better — it had a longer reach and Clark was able to use it to keep Lex at a distance — but it was only wood and would eventually be unable to resist the tempered metal blade of the sword. At least it gave them some time — Clark to hold Lex off, and her to find something that could help! She looked around frantically, but the contents of the room gave her no inspiration. Where was something to hit Lex over the head with? There wasn't even anything heavy enough to throw!
Except … her eyes had gone past it before she realised what she was seeing. The study was differently arranged to the way it had been five years ago, when she was a semi-regular visitor. Much of the furniture and the decor was the same, but there were some additions, too, and one of those made her spirits leap.
A snapping sound made her look round to see, as she had feared, that the lamp had been cut in two. She watched, heart in mouth, as Lex lunged again at his unarmed target … and gasped as Clark pulled a stunt right out of "The Three Musketeers", tangling the sword in his cape and slamming a fist into Luthor's face!
The pain of the blow on his still-tender jaw made Luthor stagger backwards, but he didn't let go of the sword. He was distracted, though, for just a moment — and that was all that Lois needed. She ran to the wall and yanked on the scabbard; it came free and she quickly raised it above her head and threw it like a javelin to her husband with a shout of "Clark! Catch!"
Clark, surprised but alert, caught it, and found himself holding a genuine Japanese katana — a long-bladed samurai sword, probably the deadliest weapon of its type ever made. He drew it quickly, for Luthor had recovered, but the expected attack did not come. Instead, Lex remained where he was, watching his adversary warily. Kent armed with a sword — any sword, but especially *that* one — was, potentially at least, a different prospect to the "defenceless" victim he'd attacked before. The alien had shown an unusual amount of skill — or luck — in defending himself; it remained to be seen which it was, and whether it would continue now that the man had a weapon.
Clark had visited Japan in his travels, and had seen samurai training. He'd even taken a couple of classes in aikido before moving on, so he wasn't a total novice in the use of a sword, Japanese style— or at least the wooden teaching version. He was no expert, though, and he was afraid that it would show in the way he handled himself with a real weapon.
He was right. His inexperience with the sword did show, and Luthor rejoiced that his caution was unnecessary. In fact, he was so pleased that he couldn't resist taunting Clark one last time. "Miyamoto Musashi has nothing to fear from you, I see, Kent — you look like a bad imitation of Luke Skywalker! But then, one shouldn't be surprised at your incompetence; as I recall from the TV coverage, you were none too skilful with that overgrown Kryptonian quarterstaff when you fought Lois' so-powerful Lord Nor, so true mastery of a *human* weapon is obviously beyond you."
Clark wasn't listening. He was alert in case Luthor stopped talking and resumed fighting, but most of his attention was focused inside himself. The feel of the katana in his hands had woken something within him, and he wanted to discover what it was. It was as though something deep inside his mind was beckoning him, and with some urgency, so he was glad that Luthor continued his sarcastic tirade; it gave him time to concentrate on this … call, without the need to do more than maintain a token awareness of his enemy.
What happened next compressed eternity into no time at all — or did an instant somehow become an eon? Clark never knew; all he was aware of, or all that he could remember later, was that he saw— no, *sensed*, for what reached his consciousness was more than the result of mere sight, even super-vision — people, places and incidents from his life, and from other people's— no, *his* other lives — all interwoven, and yet separate.
He saw, and heard, and felt, and above all, *remembered* his aikido sessions; his lessons in Yi Chi from Lynn Chow, and using what she taught him against Harlan Black's thug; learning the use of the Drei from Ching, and his duel with Nor; fighting Baron Tempos, both as Sir Charles and as himself in Charles' body; studying the art of knife-fighting with an old Native American chief; bringing down Tempus Tex and his henchmen; even watching Lois at her Tae Kwon Do classes. All these and an uncountable number of other events from times past and times future, from the dawn of humanity to its eventual transformation into something wonderful but incomprehensible, flashed through his mind, each leaving something of itself as it passed. Strongest of all, and yet the haziest, lacking any other detail, was the feel of a sword in his hands — a katana, oh, so like the one he held back in the "real" world.
Lois was in many— *most* of these "memories", though she had a thousand different names and dressed in clothing in a myriad of styles. Wherever he was, she was — and wherever she was, he was, protecting her and being protected by her. Whether he was her servant, ruler or partner, they were always together, facing life's challenges as a team, eternally bound in a love as strong as the forces that created and drove the universe.
He slowly came back to the world and the penthouse and Luthor, still ranting — at least, it felt as though it happened slowly, but when an age has raced through your mind in what seems like nothing flat, who can say how much time has passed? Of more importance was the way in which everything that he remembered came together inside him. The memories assembled themselves like the pieces in a jigsaw, and the finished "picture" was one of great resolution, of calm, focused concentration, and of determined confidence in his ability to overcome his enemy and defend his soul mate and love, and all that they cherished. Evil would not triumph this day — not while he lived.
This new awareness, for all its depth and clarity, took a little getting used to, and Clark's eyes glazed over for a fraction of a second while he came to terms with it — and in that instant, Luthor, watching for just such a lapse in concentration, charged.
The sword of Alexander arced through the air towards Clark, eager to strike and kill while its target was distracted … only to come up short as it met the katana with a resounding *clang!* Luthor was caught off-balance by the impact of the blades, but he stayed on his feet and stepped back to recover, then lunged. Again, his sword came nowhere near the caped figure in front of him, the other sword moving swiftly and precisely to block.
Luthor frowned as he retreated a second time. Kent's posture when he had drawn the katana should have meant that he would be easy meat for a fencer of his own skill and experience. Could he, despite his words of mere moments ago, have underestimated the alien again? If so, his enemy's reprieve would be short-lived. As would the enemy.
To Lois, watching from across the room, what followed looked like a macabre dance. Lex lunged and slashed and thrust and cut, using every fencing trick and stratagem he knew, but Clark's sword was there to thwart him every time. Sparks flew and the sound of the meeting blades resounded throughout the penthouse, but nothing more. Lex could not break through Clark's defence — not even force him to retreat — but that was all; no matter what happened, Clark remained on the defensive, seemingly never able to launch his own attack.
Lois was amazed by Clark's skill. 'When did he learn to do *this?*' she thought as Luthor tried a series of lunges and rapid cuts that were foiled neatly, economically and almost nonchalantly by the samurai sword. Both men were breathing heavily by now — Lex more so than Clark — but, to Lois' astonishment, Clark began to banter with Lex!
"Ever read Gordon R. Dickson, Luthor?" he panted. Lex's only answer was another onslaught, and the swords clashed yet again. "Maybe you should have. There's a book in his Childe Cycle series called 'The Tactics of Mistake.'" Another flurry of strokes, but to no more result than any other.
"Dickson uses fencing to illustrate the tactics of mistake," Clark went on as he parried yet another series of thrusts and slashes. A frustrated Luthor remained silent, happy to allow his opponent to waste his breath drivelling on about third-rate authors; what he couldn't understand was why Kent bothered. He attacked again with renewed fury — or, after so long in what ought to have been the shortest of bouts, was there a touch of desperation there, too? — so that Clark had to concentrate on his swordplay rather than talking. He continued to speak, though, as the blades rang together again and again.
"He describes how a fencing master can engage his opponent … in a series of … inconclusive passes … that look ineffective … until the opponent finds … that each time, his blade … has been drawn further and further away … from its usual position … leaving him open … to a surprise attack."
As he realised the sense of what Clark was saying, Luthor jumped backwards in alarm to disengage. He couldn't see how Kent could attack him, but he wasn't taking chances. The man had proven to be a far more worthy adversary than he had expected — which would make his victory all the sweeter. He was alert for a follow-up attack, but Clark didn't come after him, didn't press the momentary advantage, didn't do *anything* but stand there, sword in hand, ready for the next threat from his foe.
Luthor couldn't understand what the Kryptonian thought he was doing … unless, the sudden, chilling thought came, he was playing for time! That must be it! Lois had said that the police were on their way; Kent must be stalling, waiting for them to arrive. Luthor cursed himself for playing his game, wasting valuable minutes gloating and bandying words with the pair of them. Well, no more. He would have to finish this up quickly — kill Kent and Lois and then use his emergency exit. Time was suddenly of the essence.
He lunged once more, fear sending another burst of adrenaline rushing through him. Clark parried. And again when Luthor renewed his attack. And again when a third lunge was revealed to be a feint that turned into a vicious slash.
Luthor was beside himself with rage and frustration. He could feel himself tiring, losing his composure, and with it his concentration; he *had* to kill Kent, and soon, but it was like attacking a brick wall with a noodle! It was … it was … damn it, it was like attacking Superman! He gritted his teeth and raised the sword for yet another strike … only to go onto the defensive himself, and barely in time.
With a ferocious yell, Clark swung the katana with all his strength in a broad arc — a clumsy attack that Luthor had no doubt that he could parry easily, and which, he realised with glee, would leave Kent wide open for a riposte that would prove deadly. *Finally*, Kent had made an error, and now he would *die!*
Or so he thought until the samurai blade, the product of the most superior metalworkers known to humanity in the age of the sword, hit his own weapon — two thousand years older, for all that it had been the property of the greatest conqueror of the ancient world — and sliced through it like a kitchen knife chopping a stick of celery!
Luthor recoiled in horror, stumbling backwards, regarding the stump of his weapon with appalled, disbelieving eyes. And *now* Clark followed him, the lethal point and wicked cutting edges of his own sword holding Lex at bay, forcing him ever back, around the desk, away from the exit … away from freedom.
Not that freedom was the foremost thought in Luthor's mind; *survival* seemed to be paramount at the moment. He was at Kent's mercy, and he doubted that even Superman would be foolish enough to have any after what had passed between them, both that day and in the past. The end must be close … and he would welcome it. Better a quick death than the disgrace of prison.
The tip of the sword now rested at Luthor's throat, and for a second, both men shared the memory of a time when they had only just met and their positions were reversed. Then Clark smiled (smugly, Luthor thought) and, in between deep breaths, said offhandedly, "The *other* example of the tactics of mistake that Dickson gives is fooling your enemy into thinking you're attacking something other than your real target."
This was almost too much for Lex. Kent had shown no fear when a sword was at his throat — although it wasn't the sign of courage that it had been taken for — and Luthor would be damned if he would show any more emotion now that he was on the receiving end. But he would not stand for being mocked with quotes from trash fit only for morons and juveniles!
"Enough, Kent!" he gasped. "Fortune has favoured you yet again. Now finish the job!"
"Kill you?" Clark asked, sounding surprised — though his sword didn't move a millimetre. "You've got a real thing about death, don't you, Luthor? Every time you're beaten, you try to commit suicide, or you only escape from justice because you're thought dead.
"I *could* kill you, you know," he went on, almost conversationally, "and God knows you deserve it if any man ever has … " The sword left Luthor's throat to be raised high into the air, ready for what could only be the killing stroke. Despite his determination not to show weakness, Lex closed his eyes …
… until Clark barked, his voice now emphatic and resolute, " … but I *won't*, because, as I told another maniac once, *that's not how I work!*"
With that, he turned and slammed the sword into the desk-top! More than razor-sharp, the blade pierced the work surface, the drawers underneath and their contents, and eventually the penthouse floor, finally coming to rest with its hilt resting firmly against the surface of the desk. It looked like a surreal version of the Sword in the Stone — and was likely to be as hard to remove.
Luthor, by contrast, saw only that death no longer stared him in the face, and that escape— perhaps *victory!* — was at hand if he was quick enough to grasp it. He hurled himself at Clark's back with a roar, arms outstretched to strike, to grasp, to tear — to maim, cripple, even kill if he was lucky.
But his charge was met, one arm seized and the other avoided as Clark stepped inside them to deliver two devastating blows — the first a sharp jab to Luthor's stomach, and the second, a full- blooded haymaker if there was ever one, to the jaw. Luthor flew back to crash into the wall, and slumped to the floor, barely conscious.
Clark winced slightly as he shook his right hand, but he couldn't help smiling. "I've wanted to do that ever since I decked Tempus Tex … " he murmured to himself, sounding decidedly satisfied.
"Pretty smooth, farm boy," Lois applauded — with, maybe, just a hint of envy? "And here I thought *I* was the martial arts expert around here … "
"You are, Lois," Clark laughed. "I've watched you at your Tae Kwon Do classes, and I guess a little of it rubbed off. That and some of the Yi Chi that Lynn Chow showed me — and what Ching taught me, of course. If you think about it, I've had a lot of opportunities to pick up this sort of thing over the last few years, and I've learnt from the best — especially from you."
Lois had to smile at that. She began to cross the room to him, but stopped when Clark reached down and grabbed his fallen foe by the shirt-front. Easily, effortlessly — even though, she thought, he couldn't possibly have his super-strength back yet — he hauled the dazed Luthor off the ground and lifted him up to where he could look him in the eye. For a moment, the two men regarded each other in silence — or perhaps it was more accurate to say that Clark regarded Luthor; for all the humiliated hatred in his eyes, Lex couldn't meet the level gaze of the other man — and then Clark began to speak.
"It's *over*, Luthor! Your power is gone, your money is gone, and your clone story has been exposed for the sham it was. All your flunkies and sycophants have abandoned you — even your wife! And your insane attempt to destroy yourself and Metropolis if you can't own it *didn't work*, thanks to Lois. You're out of places to run and things to hide behind … "
Lois never quite knew what made her do it, although, on later reflection, she certainly had no trouble coming up with good reasons. At the time, though, all she was aware of was a sudden, irresistible urge to revenge herself, however slightly, on this man who had attacked everything she held dear — not once, but again and again. And she knew just where and how to strike, too. "Yeah," she murmured in a quiet but carrying tone that was all the more effective for its lack of any violent emotion, its almost disinterested quality, "and we just proved that you can't beat Clark Kent in a fair fight, either — but then, you never could compete with him as a *man!*"
That soft pronouncement seemed to be the final straw for Luthor. He sagged against Clark's arm, utterly defeated, before slowly collapsing to the ground. Once there, he was silent for a moment before managing to weakly pant, "What … now … ?"
"Now, we get out of here — all of us. The police are outside. Inspector Henderson is waiting to arrest you, and he'll happily add arson and attempted mass murder to the list of charges. Of course, all that can happen is that the judge will add another couple of life sentences to what you already have to serve, but it doesn't matter; you're headed back to prison, Luthor, and the world will know you for the scum that you are, once and for all!"
That seemed to rouse Luthor slightly, although he still couldn't move. "No … " he gasped, "I'll … tell … "
Lois could guess what he was going to say — "Let me go or I'll tell them your secret" — and, despite having expected it, she was at a loss as to what to do about it. Clark couldn't — and *wouldn't* — let Lex go, not after everything he'd done and tried to do, but how could they stop him from telling what he knew as one final gesture with which to strike back at his hated enemy?
'Damn Lex!' she raged inwardly. 'If it hadn't been for that blasted clone of his, he'd never have known about Clark, and he wouldn't be able to ruin our lives this way!' But what could they do? The only way to ensure Lex's silence is to kill him … and Clark wouldn't even *think* of that, much less do it! Which meant … 'Maybe *I* should?'
It was an awful thought, and it got worse as her mind raced, looking for an alternative … without success. It seemed to be the only thing that could save them from the hell that would ensue if the world knew of Clark and Superman — but the cost! If she killed Lex — and she was sure, both physically and mentally, that she could do it, *if* Clark would let her — what would happen to her life?
She didn't fear prison. After everything Lex had done to her, both today and in the past, no jury in the world would doubt a plea of self-defence — but *Clark* would be appalled. He would never feel able to trust her again. He might *hate* her. Their marriage … well, if it wasn't over immediately, it could never be the same. She might not even be allowed to see Laura again. It wouldn't even matter if she didn't manage to commit murder; the mere attempt would be enough.
Was this to be Luthor's ultimate revenge? Would she have to kill him for the sake of Clark and Laura, only to lose them even as she liberated them from his evil?
She looked over at Clark, her eyes filling with tears. She loved him so much, and he had given her happiness that she had never thought she could ever know. How could she *not* do this for him, even if it meant the end of that very happiness? He was worth it. Laura was worth it.
And then Clark laughed. A short bark of laughter, but one that was filled with irrepressible humour — merriment, even … and *defiance?* Lois' eyes went wide as her gaze snapped back to him. To her amazement, he was regarding Luthor with a look of something like amused exasperation, one eyebrow cocked and his mouth quirked on one side in a familiar half-smile.
Her astonishment continued to grow as she watched and listened. "You'll tell?" he snorted. "Tell what? Tell the world that I'm Superman?" Once again, he reached down and pulled Luthor from the floor, this time lifting the supine form until the two men's faces were mere inches apart. "*Go ahead!*" he hissed.
The proverbial impartial observer would have been hard put to tell who was more shocked, Lois or Lex. For her part, Lois was now halfway towards panic and her mind was whirling. What was Clark saying? Was he crazy? Had he been hurt in the fight and no-one had noticed? Why was he *doing* this?
Luthor didn't have the strength to react much, but the shock clearly showed on his face — before Clark dropped him and his expression changed to one of pain as he landed heavily. Clark knelt down and rolled him over so that he could see the man's face before continuing, "That's right, Luthor. You want to tell the world that I'm Superman, you go right ahead. You won't be doing anything that hasn't been done before. You're … what? the *third* person to try to do that — oh, and you might like to know that the other two are in prison, and one of them is confined to the psychiatric wing — so I doubt very much if anyone will believe you. They certainly won't *today*, thanks to you! And even if they do … *I don't care!*"
He shook his head gently and smiled, but the smile was unlike anything that Lois could remember seeing — from him, at least. It was grimly satisfied, it was ever so slightly smug, and it was even a little contemptuous. It was, she realised, the smile of a man who has faced and withstood every attack that his enemy has made, including the ace-in-the-hole that his foe assumed to be an unbeatable trump card, but which has proven to be merely pathetic.
"That's right," he went on, "I don't care. Oh, I'd still prefer that the world didn't know — not yet, anyway — but I've been to a place where it's no secret that Clark Kent is Superman, and life there is not so terrible. And even if it was as awful as I once feared it could be, I know now that I could survive. I can survive anything— *we* can survive anything — together."
Clark's eyes never left Luthor's as he said this, and the ex-billionaire could see in that unwavering stare that this was no false bluster. That realisation was the final straw for Luthor, and he closed his eyes in utter humiliation and despair. The final, ignominious thought that followed him into unconsciousness was that he had made every effort, done everything in his power to bring down and destroy this man, and he had *failed.*
Clark stood up and reached out a hand to his wife, who ran happily to him, wrapping her arms around him in an ecstatic embrace and burying her head against his chest. Her mind awash with an over-powering sense of relief, she couldn't, at that moment, quite focus enough to understand Clark's seeming change of heart, but it didn't matter; all she knew, all she *felt* was overwhelming joy that, once again, he had saved her. Even when the danger came from within herself, he was there for her, protecting her, helping her, supporting her … keeping her safe.
Now that she *was* safe, she could see the enormity of the mistake she had been so close to making, but she could also remember the desperation that she had felt barely a minute or two ago. With no idea of another solution to a dilemma like that, it was all too easy to contemplate the unthinkable, especially after everything else that she'd been through today. 'Thank God for Clark,' she thought. Without him, with no dissenting voice from either without or within, the thought could so effortlessly have become reality. She'd have to remember that, the next time that she wrote about, say, the murder of an abusive parent — or even someone like Martha's friend Cliff.
Clark could tell from the way that she held him that something had happened that he and Lois would need to talk about, but there were things that needed to be done here and now. He hugged her tightly for a few more seconds, keeping a close eye on the comatose figure on the floor, then kissed her gently and moved away to secure Lex.
There was nothing handy to tie him up with, so Clark took off his cape and ripped it in two, slightly amused at the fact that he wouldn't have been able to tear it without his super-strength were it not for the cuts that Luthor's sword had made in the material when he used it to entangle the blade. 'Mom won't mind making another cape,' Clark thought, 'After all, she's the one who thought it looked so great as part of the suit.'
The strong scarlet cloth made a quite serviceable "rope" and, with Lois' help, Luthor's arms and legs were soon securely bound. Only then did Clark finally let out a sigh of relief and relax — and remember a minor problem.
"Honey," he said, straightening up and stretching unusually tired muscles, "Can you go down to the Jeep and get my spare suit and glasses after you send the cops up here? We don't know how long my powers will be gone for, so I'm earth-bound for the moment, and it'll be easier to leave with you as Clark rather than as Superman."
Lois had been watching him stretch, and wasn't paying as much attention as she might have been — not to what Clark was *saying*, that is. But her mind registered what her ears were hearing after a few seconds, and she dragged herself back to the business at hand. After all, the sooner they got out of here, the sooner she could get him home …
"Okay," she said, standing up herself — to *his* evident appreciation. She hesitated before leaving; he was right, he did need the clothes, but after all the drama of the last hour or so, she was still a little nervous. "You'll be okay keeping an eye on Lex until Henderson gets here, won't you?"
"I'll be fine, Lois. Luthor isn't going to wake up for a while — not this time. And even if he does, he isn't going anywhere, not tied up like that. You know how secure those bonds are — you helped me tie them!"
"Yeah, okay … " Reassured more by her husband's tone of voice than what he had said, Lois turned and headed for the elevator. Clark waved to her as the doors closed and settled down to watch their captive and await her return.
Back at the Planet, things were mostly calm. The bomb squad had searched the building and found nothing (to no-one's surprise), the fire brigade had checked the newsroom for hot spots and made sure that they would not start another fire, the badly-injured people were all on their way to hospital, and everyone else was being checked out by paramedics and a couple of doctors who'd been passing and offered their services.
One exception to the general air of peace and relief was Penny, who'd been separated from Jimmy when he went to turn off the power. She'd been fairly brusquely shepherded away from the conference room and out of the building, and hadn't been able to find her boyfriend until he finally emerged some time later, helping an ambulance crew move one of the last of the stretcher cases.
She waited until the injured man was loaded into the ambulance, and then ran over to him, calling, "Jimmy? Jimmy! Oh, thank God you're all right! You *are* all right, aren't you … ?" At his somewhat dazed nod, Penny wrapped her arms around him in the hardest hug she could manage. "You saved my life! You saved Ralph! And Alice!"
Jimmy was still on the end of an adrenalin high, and his mind could only focus on the last thing that she'd said. "Yeah, well I *had* to … " he replied as though it ought to have been obvious. "Perry would have killed me if she'd been hurt."
Penny looked at him for a few moments, speechless and bewildered at his seeming nonchalance. Then she hugged him again, her eyes starting to tear up, and said in an almost desperate tone, "You crazy hero, you! I do love you … "
Something clicked in Jimmy's brain. He held Penny close, but didn't say anything for a while beyond a near-automatic response of "I love you, too." It wasn't that he didn't mean it, but it was as though he said it by rote, his mind on something else — which it was. The silence between them lasted for only a few moments, although it seemed longer to Penny, who didn't understand why he'd gone quiet all of a sudden.
But then he came back to Earth, so to speak, and held her at arm's length, gazing intently into her eyes. "Okay, that settles it," he said decisively. "Penny — will you marry me?"
*This* was unexpected, to say the least, and Penny was flustered. He sounded so *determined* … "What? Why … I mean, we … " she babbled before finally managing to ask the real question: "What made you decide this *now?*"
"Do you remember me telling you about Benny Rockland and what happened to him a couple of years ago?" Penny nodded, confused by the seeming change of subject. "Well, one thing I didn't tell you was that when I went looking for the woman who did that to him, I *found* her — and she did the same thing to *me!*"
Penny was startled; Benny Rockland had died of old age —at *22!* — after running afoul of a crazy doctor who'd invented a device that sucked the youth out of him and gave it to someone else. Jimmy *couldn't* have had that done to him …
"Yeah," he said, nodding in confirmation. "I was about 70 for a couple of hours. I nearly died. The only reason I'm here now is because Superman volunteered to give up some of his life-force to save me."
Penny, astonished and nearly in tears again, would have said something, but he laid a finger on her lips. "I know — what can you say about a friend like that? I tried to thank him the next time I saw him, but he wasn't interested. I asked him why he'd done it — why he'd given up years of his own life for me — and he told me that he didn't think he'd given up anything. I was okay, that was all that was important. As for losing years of his life, well, no-one knew how much time they had to live; some maniac with a piece of Kryptonite might come along tomorrow and kill him, and what good would those 'lost' years do him then?
"And then he said something that I've never forgotten. 'Jim,' he said, 'it's not the years that count, it's what you do with them. How could I go on with my life knowing that I let one of my closest friends die just so I could exist a little longer? Years, months, weeks, days — they're all just made up of moments, and every one of us lives life one moment at a time. Make the most of *your* moments and we'll both be better off, because "my" life will have been lived to the full, and it doesn't matter if *I* didn't do all the living myself.'
"So that's what I'm gonna do. And I want to share those moments with you, and I want to do it *now*, because something like this might happen again, and I don't want to miss what I could have had. We've thought about it, we've had our trial run, now let's *do* it!" He paused, suddenly worried by her silence. "That is, if *you* want to … "
"If *I* want to?" she yelped. "Of course I do, you … " Just what Jimmy was would remain a mystery, because Penny threw herself at him and their mouths met in a kiss so passionate that people for some distance around felt that they were somehow intruding on something private and very special. Certain connoisseurs of Public Displays of Affection were heard to opine that those two had promise — perhaps not up to Lane and Kent standard yet, but give them time …
Jimmy and Penny didn't hear this; they would have found it amusing, but they were … preoccupied.
Two of the watching connoisseurs were Perry and Alice, sitting together while a doctor checked the cuts on her leg for any embedded glass. "Look at those two," Alice whispered, smiling reminiscently. "Nothing like a bomb, or whatever it was, to get the juices flowing when you're that age."
"What's age got to do with it?" Perry protested. "Wait till the docs let us go, and I'll show you that I ain't been squeezed dry yet!"
"Oooo … tell me more," she replied playfully, and then fell silent. Her smile softened as she remembered times when the two of them had felt like Jimmy and Penny — and not just when they were that age, either! Yes, danger could certainly add a certain spice to life …
"Remember Beirut?" she murmured, laying her head on Perry's shoulder almost instinctively.
"Uh-huh. And Montevideo. And Bogota. Not t'mention Saigon, Prague, Belfast, Nairobi and Antarctica … "
Alice giggled. "*I*'d almost forgotten about Antarctica … Do you think anyone would ever believe us if we told them about it?"
"Probably not — I'm not sure *I* believe it after all these years."
"True, true … It would have made one heck of a story, though, wouldn't it?"
"It sure would. Do you remember Old Man Krebbs' face when we turned in our copy? He looked sicker'n a mad dog when he realised that we weren't jokin' — and even worse when the suits upstairs told him he couldn't print it!"
They both laughed, and Alice found herself awash in something that she hadn't felt for years — the joy of true companionship, of shared experiences that no other people on Earth would or could know — and, to her surprise, she found that she'd missed it dreadfully.
'You can have it back, you know,' she told herself, 'if you're prepared to take the risk. Are you?'
She rolled her head on his shoulder and looked at the familiar profile of the man who had one been her husband, and who was still— had always been — the man she loved. He was grinning broadly at the memory, and she felt her heart flip at the sight of his rugged, handsome face, the same way it had when he'd burst out of his office to take charge of the evacuation and rescue of the newsroom staff.
She hadn't been able to avoid overhearing Penny call Jimmy a hero, and she had to agree, but there had been more than one hero there in the newsroom. Superman had been invaluable, as always, and she'd always be grateful to Jimmy, and it was wonderful — but no more than she expected — to see all the other people go to the aid of their friends and colleagues, but Perry had been just as much a hero as anyone else. He'd been everywhere, a big, gruff man who'd told people what to do, reassured and bucked them up so that they could do it, and then got down and joined in. An awful lot of people owed their lives or their health to this man …
'You want more than what you've got now? Well, how does a hero straight out of a story-book sound? There he is. All you have to do is give him a chance.'
Alice smiled. Taking chances … in a way, that's what their marriage had been about for many years — certainly before they'd had kids. But then they'd had to ease off for the boys' sake and … got too comfortable, maybe, and had forgotten how to do it. Perry had gone through a period of almost compulsive risk- taking a few years ago; he'd said it was his version of a mid- life crisis. If it was, what a shame that they hadn't done much more of it *together* …
Perhaps it was time to start taking a few more chances as a couple again. In which case, let the first big one be *becoming* a couple again.
The doctor finished his inspection and pronounced the cuts on her legs as clean and free of any foreign bodies. He made a few typical doctor-type suggestions — go home, have a good rest, take it easy for a day or two — then moved on to the next patient. Alice watched him go with a mixture of mild amusement and annoyance at being patronised; between bringing up two active sons and some of the adventures that she'd shared with Perry, she probably had more experience with this kind of wound than he did! Still, she was glad he was gone; she didn't want anyone listening in when she took the plunge — which she intended to do right now!
"Speaking of going home … " she murmured, "the lease on my apartment runs out in about six weeks. You don't suppose there's an old hound-dog around somewhere who might have a spare corner in his kennel that I could use?"
Perry was stunned, and it showed. "Alice … honey … " he managed to half-gasp in a most un-editor-like tone, "Are you … *do* you … ?"
Alice took pity on him and filled in the blanks. "Am I asking what you think I'm asking? Do I want to come back?" He nodded, now totally unable to say *anything.* Fortunately, Alice said it for him. "Yes, you crazy fool, that's exactly what I'm saying. We're not going to get married again, though — not yet, anyway; I've wanted to live in sin ever since it was all the rage in the Sixties, and this is my chance. We missed it the first time around, and I want to find out what all the fuss was about."
Her grin was truly wicked, but the sparkle in her eyes held deeper emotions — love, reaction to the recent danger, and even a hint of nervousness. Or so Perry thought, and it inspired him to reply in kind. "Oh, and here was I thinkin' you wanted me as a sugar daddy. Guess it's just as well — I couldn't afford to keep a woman with expensive tastes like yours. Kind of a shame, though; I always wanted to come home to some pretty little thing in a black negligee … "
Alice blushed and looked around to see if anyone had heard him. No-one seemed to, for which she was thankful, and, more comfortable now that she knew that their private conversation *was* private, she stretched up to whisper in Perry's ear, "That can be arranged … " Perry roared with laughter and hugged her, which she enjoyed for just a few seconds, before becoming more serious and finishing the sentence: " … always providing you remember to *come* home."
That made him stop laughing, and he gently moved her to where he could look into her eyes, his own obviously troubled. "Aw, Alice … honey … " he said hesitantly, trying valiantly not to stumble over his own words, because he knew that what he said now would determine their future together — if they had one.
"Alice," he repeated, "You know me. The Planet's been such a big part of my life for so long … maybe *too* big a part, but that's the way I am. I never wanted my job to come between us, but it did … and I'm kinda scared that it might do it again.
"You have to believe that the *last* thing I want is for you to get hurt because I work too much … but I can't promise that it won't happen; that's how I am, and I don't know any other way of doing my job." He paused and waved a hand at the scene around them — injured employees, ambulances, police, firefighters, wreckage. "And then there's *this* sort of thing …
"What I *can* do is to try to keep going the way we have been lately — that's been okay, hasn't it?" Alice nodded, and a relieved Perry went on, "and promise that if you tell me that I'm overdoing it again and you'd like some attention, I'll listen to you and do something about it. I've learnt *that* lesson, at least."
He paused and took a deep breath, apprehension all over his face, then asked the crunch question: "Is that gonna be enough?"
'Well, Alice, is it?' she demanded of herself. 'That's what you've been trying to work out all day, isn't it? Have you made up your mind or not?'
For just a moment, she looked down, lost in a sudden return of indecision, but then she met Perry's worried eyes and couldn't resist smiling, just a little. And that did it; her man was there, he wanted her back, and he was prepared to do what she asked to get her — but he also knew his own limitations and was more concerned that *she* not be hurt than with his own desires. It was a potent combination, and Alice wasn't trying too hard to resist; she'd already made the decision, really, and she didn't want to back out. Besides, she reckoned she had the measure of her rival now, especially now that she knew that what she wanted was what Perry wanted, too, and those memories had given her an idea. Maybe it was time there was *another* White at the Daily Planet again …
"We'll just have to see, won't we?" she said softly, her eyes shining. Perry pulled her to him and the world went away for a while.
Henderson looked around the study with the eye of someone who'd seen many a crime scene, even ones in such luxurious surroundings as these. Of course, none of those scenes had looked quite like this one. The overturned and smashed furniture was nothing new, nor were the other tell-tale signs of a battle royal; even the seriously rich had fights. It was the melted, blackened remains of some kind of high-tech weapon that made the scene around him unique — that and other little touches like the weird crystal globe sitting on the desk and the antique sword lying on the floor in pieces.
The globe was causing him the most concern at present. From what Superman and Lane had said (and trust Lane to be involved!), it was vital evidence, but he was sure that, as soon as the Feds heard about it — which they'd have to, because half the charges Luthor would be facing were Federal ones (kidnapping, conspiracy to impersonate the President, etc.) — it would disappear into the black hole of "national security" and never be seen again. Before that happened, he wanted his own people to get the evidence the D.A. would need to prosecute. Arson and multiple counts of attempted murder were major felonies, and he didn't want Luthor's crimes against the people of Metropolis to be forgotten for the so-called "more important" offences that the FBI and other agencies would jump on.
"Yeah, George," he said into his mobile phone, "I want a full team over here as of ten minutes ago. And get onto Klein if you can; there's something here I think he needs to see before the Feds grab it.
"Yeah … yeah, okay. Right … we'll be here. See you then."
He put the phone on stand-by and stuck it back into his pocket, then took another look around, running through a mental list of everything that needed to be done. First order of business was to make sure Luthor was safely stashed in a cell at Headquarters. He'd been formally arrested, read his rights and cuffed, so it should be simple enough to get him out of here now that most of the people who'd been crowding around outside after evacuating the building — no-one knew why — had either returned to work or left.
After that … well, there wasn't that much to do. It wasn't as though there was a lot of investigation to be done. He had witnesses, and they were more than willing to testify. Superman had already left after arranging to come in and give a statement later, and Lane was just waiting for Kent to show up before heading back to the Planet to write up her precious exclusive. She'd be along to give her statement, too. So, after he'd told the forensic boys and Dr Klein what to do here, he could head back to Headquarters and spend the rest of the day completing the paperwork — not to mention bringing the D.A.'s office up to speed. And, of course, the Feds would eventually get in on the act, but he hoped to have everything pretty much wrapped up by the time they descended on him.
He waved over two uniformed men that he'd chosen personally for this. He could rely on them, no question. "Okay, Shaw, Murray, you know what to do. Take him downtown, book him and make sure he goes into maximum security. Oh, and get a doc to look at those bruises, but I want you two to keep your eye on him all the way. No slip-ups, right?"
"Right, Inspector. Come on, buddy, you've got a date with a holding cell."
Luthor didn't respond as he stumbled towards the elevator between the two big cops. His eyes were blank, fixed straight ahead, and seemed to see nothing. Only when Clark appeared from a side door, adjusting his tie, did he react, casting a look of burning hatred in that direction … but then ducked his head and seemed to shrivel inside himself when the reporter met his eyes with a calm, steady stare.
Lois saw Clark emerge into the corridor, and came to meet him, smiling. He saw her, and turned to watch her walk towards him … and so missed what was happening behind him until he saw her expression change to surprise, and then to apprehension.
He whirled to see the two policemen coughing and gagging in a cloud of gas from a small canister on the floor, and Luthor struggling weakly in the grip of an unknown assailant — and with a gun, a large revolver, shoved into his mouth! Later, Lois was to tell him that the man had appeared from the elevator, tossing his gas bomb perfectly into the midst of the approaching trio when the elevator doors opened at just the right moment; for now, Clark's main concern was that gun … and the fact that he thought he recognised the person holding it.
"Alex? Is that you?"
"Oh, yeah. Hi, Mr Kent. You too, Ms Lane. Do me a favour and get these guys to back off, willya? Lexy-boy here is gonna get his, but I don't want anyone else hurt."
"Alex, what are you doing? Please, put the gun down," Clark pleaded while Lois yanked the gasping cops away from the gas.
"No way, man. Nope, this is it for big, bad Mr Luthor here. First I wrecked his company, and now I'm gonna nail his hide to the wall, just the way I promised Nicky."
Luthor, barely managing not to choke on the gun barrel, jerked slightly to one side, trying to get a look at the man holding him. Alex guessed why and laughed.
"Whatsamatter, Lexy-boy? Don't you believe me? You better, 'cause I ain't lyin'. Oh, no, I *want* you to know who's taken you down, and why. It was me, man — with a little help, yeah, but mostly me.
"You've been hacked to death, Luthor, by the granddaddy of all computer viruses. My program LCKILLER — short, naturally, for LexCorp Killer — was an absolute masterpiece. How much money did you lose? Ten billion, or was it closer to eleven? I stopped counting after about eight … "
Luthor's eyes widened in shock and anger, but he was too weak, and held too tightly by the young hacker, to free himself — and especially to get that gun out of his mouth. Nor was it likely that anyone else could help him; the police were covering his assailant — Alex? — but they couldn't hope to kill him, or even *touch* him, without the near-certainty that he'd pull the trigger. As for Kent … ! The irony was staggering: Superman was the one person who stood any chance of rescuing Luthor — but he couldn't, because he didn't have his powers right now, thanks to Lex's own super-weapon!
"Why did I do it?" Alex asked rhetorically, anticipating the inevitable next question. "Because this … this *louse*, this piece of *scum* is responsible for the deaths of both my brothers! Remember Chris Trifyllis, Lexy-boy? Remember sending your lap-dog O'Reilly to kill him? Didja know that Eeyore has ratted on you, and is gonna be the star witness at your trial for Chris' death — except that you ain't gonna *have* one!
"And then there's what happened to Nicky … You sent your goons to get him, too, 'cause you wanted what he was working on, but they messed up! We got away and went into hiding, and I've been hacking into your computers ever since … but Nicky still died, and it's *all because of you!*" he sobbed harshly. "And that's why your time on Earth is over, Luthor!"
"Oh, Alex … " came a soft voice. Lois' voice. "How awful. But you don't have to kill Lex. He's been arrested for Chris' murder, and a lot of other things, too; the number of charges he's facing is *huge.* Let him go, and let the courts deal with him. You can watch him go to prison for his crimes … and *your* hands won't be dirty like his."
"Lois is right, Alex," Clark chimed in, equally calmly. "Don't do this; not for Chris' sake, not for Nick's, and especially not for your own. I never knew Chris, but I met Nick, remember? My impression of him was that he was a gentle man, interested in helping other people. Even what he did to Lois and me came from him wanting to find a way to help people; he just … got a bit obsessed, that's all. I can understand that; Lois is always telling me that I obsess about things … "
Despite the tense situation, Lois couldn't resist flashing a quick glance at Clark, grinning and muttering under her breath, "And you do, too, farm boy," knowing that he could hear her, whether or not his super-hearing was working. Clark didn't react, though, not wanting to lose the fragile contact he felt he was making with Alex.
"And if I could see that Nick was like that, then I *know* that he wouldn't want you to become a murderer. Let Luthor *go*, Alex. Let the police and the courts deal with him, the way they do with other criminals. I want to see him get what's coming to him just as much as you do, but killing him like this is *not* the way."
For a moment, it looked as though Alex was going to give in, but then his expression visibly hardened and he roughly jabbed the gun against the roof of Luthor's mouth. "No!" he cried. "Anyone else, maybe, but not Luthor! He's died once before, remember? And he came back. He went to prison, but he escaped. He's cheated justice *so* many times … I'm not gonna let it happen again!"
No-one had noticed, but the jab with the gun had been for more than show. While Luthor was distracted by the pain, Alex had reached into a pocket with his other hand and pulled out something small, black and unpleasant-looking. A grenade.
"I thought about this a lot, ever since I decided what I was going to do. It's not enough just to kill Lexy-boy, not even enough to take everything he owns from him and *then* kill him. No, he's beaten that before, and there are too many crazy people out there who think he's some kind of … I dunno, *god* or something. People like Gretchen Kelly, Miranda, Arianna Carlin, the Presses … I don't know how anyone can be so stupid, but *they* were, and there's more out there like them.
"Even if I killed him and made sure that he couldn't be resurrected — say, by cutting him up — would you bet that one of them wouldn't try to *clone* him? I read those reports I sent to Bernard Klein; they couldn't do it 5 years ago, but in ten years' time? I'm not taking the chance. I am going to obliterate every last trace of Mr Lex Luthor on this Earth."
He held up the grenade, then brought it to his mouth and pulled out the pin with his teeth. "This … " he declaimed to the room at large, " … is a thermite grenade. A special one. When it goes off, the temperature of its explosion is hot enough to destroy any DNA that might survive the blast wave itself. It has a five-second fuse … "
To the horror of the watching police and reporters, Alex released the handle of the grenade, starting the 5-second delay. Clark went to jump him, but Lois grabbed his arm and hung on for all she was worth. "No, Clark!" she screamed, "No!" and Clark, caught off-balance by his wife's unexpected grip, stumbled and half- fell.
Meantime, Alex was softly counting, "One … two … three … " At the count of 3, he squeezed the handle again, halting the countdown — for as long as he kept holding it — and resumed addressing the room. " … which has now approximately *two* seconds left. I suggest you all back away, because I don't want anyone, especially not Ms Lane and Mr Kent here, to get hurt when this baby goes off."
"What about you, Alex?" Lois cried. "When that goes off, you'll be killed!"
"I don't think so — or it won't matter, anyway. Now *back off*, you two, or I'll kill Luthor here and now, and you'll have to take your chances!"
"Do what he says, Lane," said Henderson. "You too, Kent. He's right; there's nothing you can do to stop him, so don't try to be a hero."
Lois and Clark exchanged glances at that, but they did what they were told. That is, Lois moved away from the two men, dragging an anguished Clark with her. "Alex, *please*," he called, "Don't do this! Don't waste your life on something as empty as revenge!"
Alex wasn't listening. He retreated a little way down the corridor, and then shoved Lex up against the wall. "I gotta put this somewhere," he growled, brandishing the grenade, "and I know *just* the place."
Luthor had thought that he had plumbed the full depths of terror and despair possible to a human being over the course of that day; he found that he was wrong when his captor stuffed the grenade into the waistband of his trousers. Alex kept hold of the handle, but it took everything Luthor had to retain control of himself with a live grenade inches from his groin.
"Okay, there's only one more thing to do: you got a message from someone I met — the help I mentioned. Interesting guy; lives 'round here, and he really enjoyed himself, setting you up. 'Cause he knows you, you see, and hates you almost as much as I do — maybe even more. He particularly wanted this to be the last thing you ever hear, and I am more than happy to oblige him.
"So, good-bye, Lexy-boy … Jaxon says he'll *see you in hell!*"
There was an odd-sounding laugh from somewhere. Lex's eyes went even wider in sheer panic, and Alex fired the gun.
The sound of the shot was the signal for the police to start firing, too. Alex didn't seem to mind; he stepped back from Lex's body, seemingly ignoring the way his body jerked as the bullets hit. Then he fell to the ground … and the grenade went off.
The fiery blast ripped along the corridor, and everyone ducked behind something as best they could. The fire alarm went off, and the automatic sprinkler system came on, adding to the confusion. The sprinklers were, naturally, the best money could buy; when the battered, wet police — and Lois and Clark — picked themselves up, their ears ringing, they found that the fire was almost out. They also found a man-sized, if oddly-shaped around the head, pile of charcoal — and Alex, still breathing.
The stench from the "corpse" — there was barely enough left to warrant the name — was awful. Lois stayed out of the way and covered her nose and mouth with a handkerchief, but a grim Clark and Henderson ignored it as they knelt down beside Alex.
"My God, he's still alive," Henderson exclaimed. "Nor for long, though. He's got third-degree burns over most of his body, and four— *five* bullet wounds." He turned and barked to Shaw, "Get an ambulance!" And then, sotto voce, "Not that it'll do him much good … "
"I don't think it matters, Inspector," Clark said quietly. "Look at this." He pulled back Alex's hair to reveal some sort of headset.
"Hey, what's that?" Lois asked. "Since when do you wear a Walkman to kill someone?"
"It's not a Walkman, honey. I think I know what it is, though. Can you remember seeing someone like *this* before?"
Clark raised Alex's arm and let it flop back, then made a few of the standard response tests that are taught in first aid classes — and Alex didn't react at all; even his involuntary reflexes were sluggish. Yet he was still alive, still breathing; it just seemed as though there was nobody home.
"Oh, my God … That's just like Jaxon was after he crashed his computer when we trapped him in the virtual world! You don't think … "
"I don't know, but it sure looks that way. When Dr Klein gets here, we can ask him to check this out, but my bet is that this is a VR headset."
"And Alex … has joined Jaxon?"
Clark shrugged, and Henderson broke in, "If that's settled, would you two mind explaining what the hell you're talking about?"
Lois sighed. "It's a long story, Bill. Let's get out of here and we'll tell you all about it."
There was nothing to be done for either body, so the trio went back into the study. Lois and Clark embraced, needing the contact to help shut out the horrors that they'd just seen. Henderson waited patiently until, after a few moments, Clark began, "It all started about three years ago, when this new Virtual Reality parlour opened … "
The news of Lex Luthor's exposure, arrest and death spread even faster than might have been expected from modern communications. The headline story in the Daily Planet was picked up by news services all over the world, and phones, faxes and Internet links ran hot as the media — even other newspapers! — demanded more than the D.A.'s press releases and the exclusive reports from Lane & Kent, who seemed to be the only ones who knew what had happened. They got nowhere, needless to say; Perry took great delight in telling everyone to wait and read the next edition — and reminding them that any attempt to use or quote from Planet copyright material without proper attribution would result in a lawsuit.
So it was that a woman living under the name of Emma Saunders came to read of the events in Metropolis as she sat at the breakfast table in her new apartment in San Diego. She also read of the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Luthor's widow, and that made her think very hard.
Should she go back? But go back to what? Lex was dead, that was certain — or as certain as one could be with anything concerning him — but the legal and financial infighting surrounding the collapse of LexCorp was set to go on for years, and she was well off out of that.
No, thanks to Alex, she had a new identity and more than enough money to live very comfortably indeed. It was an awful shame about what had happened to the man who had set her free, and about his brothers, but it was done now, and no good purpose would be served by the reappearance of Lex's "missing" widow. She had had a narrow escape from her own folly, and she intended to learn from that and *not* go back into the lions' den.
Beth Luthor was gone, and, with luck, would be presumed dead in a few years. "Emma Saunders" had a comfortable life to look forward to, and she was going to live that life as unobtrusively as possible. She'd had her time in the spotlight, and once was enough.
Before turning to the local news pages of her paper, Beth spared one final thought for three other people who had been threatened by Lex. Lois and Clark had, she gathered, played a major part in Lex's final downfall, and she thanked them for that. She also sent whatever intangible good will there was to send, to their little girl. In a way, Laura was responsible for all that had happened in the last year or so; if Beth hadn't found out about Lex's insane plan to take her from her parents, she never would have found it in herself to move against him, however tentative her first steps may have seemed at the time.
'Bless you, little one,' she thought. 'For my sake, and for your parents'. Because of you, I lost a life of luxury, and my husband … but I kept my soul.'
"Okay, Mother. That's great. We'll see you and Daddy here on the 17th. Bye."
Lois hung up with the usual sensation of relief that tended to accompany the end of a telephone conversation with her mother, but she was more interested in the fact that she'd come to the end of her list. "That's everyone," she called to Clark, who was in the kitchen. "And they're *all* coming," she added with amazement. "This is going to be the biggest Lane-Kent family party ever!"
"Don't sound so surprised," Clark replied as he came into the living room, carrying two glasses of wine. "Did you really expect anyone to not want to come to Laura's first birthday?"
"Well, no … but I *am* surprised that they all were *able* to make it. Your parents, my parents, Perry and Alice, Jimmy and Penny, some of the other kids from the day-care centre and their parents … it's gonna be quite a crowd. Even Lucy's coming — *and* she knows that Daddy will be here!"
Clark said nothing, merely contenting himself with a half-cocked eyebrow as he sat down on the couch beside Lois. It felt as though he'd sat on something, so he got up again immediately and, after putting the glasses on a table, went to look for whatever it was.
It turned out to be a small envelope with "Mr and Mrs Kent" on it in neat, but old-fashioned handwriting. "What's this?" Clark asked.
"Beats me," Lois replied. "How'd it get *there?* Oh, never mind — open it."
Clark did, and pulled out a small note in that same neat writing. "'Dear Lois and Clark,' he read, 'I have great pleasure in accepting your kind invitation to your daughter's birthday party on the 17th of August, 1999. Yours truly … H.G. Wells.'"
"Oh," said Lois. "Okay … another guest shouldn't be a problem. I kinda wish you'd told me you invited him, though."
"I didn't invite him, Lois — I thought *you* did."
"Me? No. So who did? And when?"
Clark didn't say anything for a moment or two, but then smiled. "I think *we* did, honey; we just haven't done it yet. We'll have to ask him about it when we see him at the party."
"Oh," she said again, thinking about it. "I guess you're right. That is so weird, though." She thought about it for a moment, then brightened. "But useful. He could make a fortune as a time- travelling messenger service. 'Forget an important appointment? Your wife's birthday? To pay your income tax? No problem — let Wells Temporal Couriers make your deliveries, and you'll never be late again!' Hey, do you think I could get a percentage of the gross for coming up with the idea?"
Clark grinned. "Maybe. But I don't think Utopia uses money, so 'the gross' might not amount to much in our terms."
"Oh, well … it was just an idea." She waved one hand at him. "Come over here and sit down. I am *beat*, and I want a comfortable husband to lean on."
Clark was happy to oblige, and Lois was soon comfortably stretched out along the couch with her head on his shoulder. "Yeah," Clark said as he sipped his wine, "It's been a heck of a couple of days, hasn't it?"
"I'll say," Lois agreed. What with writing up the full story of Luthor's downfall (Kerth material at the very least, and Lois was seriously thinking Pulitzer and/or Nobel Prizes), making statements to the police and FBI, helping other reporters look at the ramifications (Donna said the financial markets were going ape over the news, and the City Council was in crisis session), looking in on injured colleagues in hospital (Ralph was out of danger and conscious, very weak but with a perpetual grin on his face as he tried to chat up the ICU nurses) *and* coping with day-to-day things like bringing up a not-quite-one-year-old little girl, both the reporters had been flat out, and they were exhausted.
Perry, more than proud of the way his newsroom had bounced back from the attack, had noticed and, after checking the latest articles from "Lane & Kent", had thrown them out, saying that he didn't want to see either of them until at least Monday, and Lois and Clark didn't argue. Nor had they seen his grin as they left; he was working just as hard, but now he had the best of reasons not to over-do it, and he was darned if he was going to let anyone else grind themselves into the dirt — especially not the "hottest team in town."
Lois put her own glass down and stretched. "Ohhhhh … that's better. I am *so* looking forward to the next two days."
"Yeah … me, too. It's gonna be great — just you and me and Laura. Pure bliss."
Lois raised her eyebrows. "No Superman? How are you feeling?"
"Pretty good, actually. My powers are coming back, bit by bit — faster than they did at the Corn Festival, but I'd expect that because they went away gradually — but it's still going to take a while. I can do everything, even fly; I'm just not as fast or as powerful as usual, so unless it's a *real* emergency — monsoon floods in Bangladesh or something — I'm going to stay right here and recuperate. Give me a couple of days, though, and Superman will be back to full strength — I reckon just about the time we go back to work."
"Mmm … I'm in no hurry. It's been lovely having you around all the time, knowing that there's no chance that you'll have to rush off. I could get used to that … " Her voice was slow and relaxed, almost drowsy, and she was very, very comfortable.
"Yeah," he said, teasing, "but that's what you said about sleeping on the ceiling."
"True … oh, well, I guess the good side balances out the bad. As long as you come back … "
"You know me, Lois. I *always* come back."
"So you do … "
He leaned over to gently kiss her. One kiss became several, some soft and leisurely, some more urgent. Eventually, they just relaxed and enjoyed being close to each other in peaceful silence.
Lois felt as though she was drifting in some warm and wonderfully comfortable place away from the everyday world; where exactly, she did not know, but Clark was there and that was all that mattered. She would have been content to stay there with him forever — or at least until she needed to move again — but her mind, ever active, wouldn't let her. Free from any definite purpose or direction, her thoughts roamed around at random, finally settling on a subject— a question — that had been nagging at her for a while. She was slightly cross with herself for not being able to just relax and enjoy being with Clark, but since she couldn't, she had to admit that this was as good a time as any to ask that question.
"Honey … " she murmured, "Can I ask you something?"
"Sure, sweetheart. What is it?"
She pulled away from him and met his eyes, her own dark and troubled. "Clark … " she said haltingly, not really wanting to disturb their all-too-rare peace, but needing to do so in order to quieten her inner anxieties, "Did you … did you mean what you told Lex about … about not caring if the world knew that you were Superman? I mean, I heard what you said, and I understand that you needed to stop Lex from blabbing your secret — and saying that sure took the wind out of his sails — and I know that you were right, that we can survive anything together … "
Her voice, which had gradually risen, both in volume and pitch (not to mention nervous energy) until it had built itself into a full Lane Babble, died away suddenly as she realised what she was doing. "But … but now that he's gone … " she went on at a more normal level — but still with the same urgency — "did you *mean* it?"
Clark wasn't sure what lay behind this, but he knew from her manner that it must be important. So he took his time answering, first gently but firmly moving Lois into a more comfortable position on the couch, but never taking his eyes from hers. His careful, serious manner calmed Lois somewhat even before he began to speak.
"Yeah, honey, I meant it. I don't want the world to know about me— *us* — but if something happens and the secret gets out, then we'll just have to deal with it. Which I *know* we can do, because I've *seen* it. I've seen the other Clark's world, and his life, and he's happy — now that he's found his Lois, he's finally happy. And so is she. If they can do it, we can do it. We can do *anything* — as long as we do it together.
"That's what Luthor never realised," he mused, holding her close. "All these years, all his plots to kill or discredit Superman — he never knew who he was fighting. He spent all his time attacking me, or trying to control you … and completely missed his target because of it.
"Superman is more than me alone; he always has been, right from the start. Oh, I have the powers — but I don't have all the brains, and definitely less than half the heart."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that … " Lois whispered, teasing — and yet, not teasing. As flattering as it was to be given so much credit for what Clark had done in his other identity, she didn't like to hear him put himself down like that, and especially not in regards to his "heart". She knew, in her own heart of hearts, that she could not have given him the help and support that he had thanked her for if he hadn't inspired her to do it. Without his example, without the caring, the compassion … yes, the *love* … that he had shown— that had *shone* from him, right from his very first appearance, she knew that cynical, driven, workaholic Mad Dog Lane could never have found it within herself to be his support, to give him the encouragement that he had needed.
And so he had drawn out of her the very qualities which he needed *from* her, but which wouldn't have been there, or couldn't have made themselves evident, if not for him. Then he had taken strength from those qualities so that he could continue to inspire them. It was like a … a game of Pong, the "ball" being the emotional … nourishment that flowed from Clark to Lois to Clark to Lois to Clark to …
She giggled at the thought — that *had* to be one of her weirder metaphors — and tightened her grip on him. He responded in kind and kissed her hair, but didn't say anything more, seemingly content just to hold her. That suited Lois, because she wanted to think about this. It wasn't just "heart" that they gave one another; Clark may not think that he had all the brains — well, that was nice, and typical, of him to acknowledge that — but if the last six years had proven anything, it was that while Lois Lane had been, and still was, one of the best investigative reporters anywhere, and Clark Kent was almost as good (not quite, but *almost*), together, "Lane & Kent" were peerless.
Even before she'd come to like him, much less love him, Lois had enjoyed working with Clark. They … struck sparks from one another, and if, in the early days, many of those had been of dislike (on her part, anyway), enough others had provided light by which she had come to see that they made one heck of a team — once she'd made the effort to look.
And once she'd made that effort, and then looked further to see the real man behind the glasses and the wild ties, *and* the flashy spandex … well, what she'd found there was more than she had believed she could ever find in anyone, much less a man. And he had found as much or more (or so he said) in her; she didn't quite believe it, but that was one argument that she had never been able to win — and didn't really want to.
She looked back at herself before she first met Clark, and thought how amazed that Lois Lane would have been to see her future self. Would she have approved — or even *believed* — what was to come? Lois hoped so; the road to this point had been long and hard, but it had been worth it. She had more than a few regrets, and some things were still painful to remember, but she'd do it all again, provided only that the end result was the same — that she would eventually find herself here, with this man and his love, and their daughter (and the promise of more children; after all, hadn't Mr Wells said that Utopia was founded by their descendant*s*?).
Right now, though, the past and future didn't matter. All that was important was *now*, being here with Clark. Lois suddenly found herself on the verge of tears, and she reached up to kiss Clark. He would have asked her what was wrong, but the kiss deepened and he forgot that, as she forgot why she was nearly crying, their love and its expression in the kiss driving out every other thought and care.
Their mouths parted, eventually, but not for long, and the second kiss was more passionate than the first. They were both considering adjourning to the bedroom when a high-pitched wail floated down from upstairs. "Oops … " Lois said softly. "Late supper call — and maybe a diaper change, too. I'll go."
"No," said Clark, getting up and holding out a hand to her, "*We'll* go. Together."
Lois pulled herself onto her feet with his help, and put one arm around him. They gazed into each other's eyes as they walked slowly towards the staircase, and then Clark wrapped his arms around her and the couple gently left the ground and floated up the stairs. The only sound to be heard was the softest of whispers from Lois: "Together … "
AUTHOR'S NOTES: If anyone is wondering who Miyamoto Musashi is, the short version is that he was a famous Japanese swordsman, painter and author of the first half of the 17th century. His books "The Thirty-five Articles on the Art of Swordsmanship" and "A Book of Five Rings" were seminal works in the development of Japanese martial philosophy. His name is probably best known today for having been given to the second of the Imperial Japanese Navy's Yamato-class battleships, the largest and most heavily-armed of their kind ever built.
And finally, this episode is scheduled to go up on the S6 website on the 26th September, 1999 — on what would have been my father's 88th birthday. I'd like to dedicate this to him, and to my mother. My parents weren't farmers (although Dad worked on a farm when he emigrated to Australia at the age of 17), but they were *my* Jonathan and Martha, and I know how lucky Clark was to have been found by the Kents. And, like Clark, I feel that if I can be half as good a father to my kids as my Dad was to me, then I'll have got it right.
Happy Birthday, Dad.
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.