By Nan Smith
Summary: Lori Lyons, a 21-year-old woman with the soul of Lois Lane, starts work at the Daily Planet News Service, and quickly finds herself enmeshed in a web of intrigue and treachery as terrorists try to sabotage the starship which her brother is to captain. Fortunately, Lori has friends and allies, including her disturbingly attractive co-worker Clark Kent — and Superman and his family! A sequel to the vignette "Home."
This story is part of Nan Smith's "Home" series. See a list of all the stories in this series and get links.
Ready for the next story in this series? Read Home III: Memories. Need the previous story? Read Home.
Disclaimer: Clark Kent, Superman, and some of the settings of this story are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros. December 3rd Productions, etc., and I have no claim on them whatsoever. The story, however, is copyrighted to me.
This story is the sequel to the vignette, "Home". If you haven't read it, you need to do so before reading this, in order to understand what is going on here. This story does not attempt to change any Lois and Clark canon. It occurs in the future 20 years after Lois Lane's death at the age of 108. It is based on the ideas of reincarnation, and Clark's slowed aging mentioned in the episodes "Soul Mates" and "Brutal Youth", so no one should get upset at the idea that Clark is pursuing a woman other than Lois Lane. Suffice to say, he isn't. However, if these ideas bother you, don't read the story.
Lori Lyons looked up in awe at the huge building that was the headquarters for the Daily Planet.
The big news service covered the Earth plus the Lunar and Martian colonies. She wondered marginally if they would have a correspondent on the Centaurus colony if the colony ship worked out. Probably. The unmanned probes had reported an earthlike planet with livable conditions. The big ship would take five years to reach its destination; then the colonists would be on their own for awhile.
She pulled her thoughts from the ship. They'd make it. They had to. Brad was the best pilot in the whole colonial team. He'd been so proud when he had been chosen. His whole family — he, his wife and two children — was among the colonists. It was a tremendous opportunity, he'd told all of them, but Lori couldn't help worrying. He was her big brother. The ship just had to make it.
Meanwhile she was delaying. She glanced at the new chronometer on her wrist; the little wrist talker was a gift from Brad after her older one had been broken in the mugging a couple of months ago. She still had ten minutes, but it was never a good idea to arrive at the last second for an appointment.
The call had been something of a surprise.
Lori was the editor of the New Troy State University Clarion, the school's newspaper, and in spite of everything that had happened over the last two months, still in the black books of the school administration. Two months ago, Lori's story of her assault on the university grounds, and her rescue by Superman, Metropolis's newest super-hero, had given the university a black eye. Her story had highlighted the way the school was scrimping on security measures for the protection of the students. The university had issued her an ultimatum: withdraw the story or else.
And then, Clark Kent had stepped in.
He'd interviewed her, he'd interviewed Superman, and he'd attempted to interview university officials, who had declined comment, a fact that he'd included in his article. He dug up police reports and interviewed other young women who had been victims. Then he launched an expose of the administration's failure to protect its students.
The school administration backed down under the glare of unwelcome publicity, and Lori was left eternally grateful to the Daily Planet's crusading investigative journalist. Not only had he saved her reputation, but the budget for the university's annual re-landscaping and renovation had been cut back to allow part of the funds to be allocated for the improvement of campus security. All, in fact, ended well.
She'd met Clark Kent several times over the last couple of months. He was a charming and, in Lori's opinion, extremely good-looking man in his late twenties, perhaps as much as thirty. Up until recently he'd been an independent journalist who traveled the globe. He had a formidable reputation among the journalistic community, but now, he'd told her, he'd decided that he wanted to put down roots, and the Daily Planet was all too ready to hire him. Lori could only be thankful that it happened when it did.
And then she'd gotten the call inviting her to the Planet to interview for an internship.
She was due to graduate in June and had worked at other papers over previous summers. She'd applied at the Daily Planet, of course, as well as several other papers, but she never really expected them to call her. Apparently Clark Kent had put in a word for her with his editor, and convinced him to give her a chance.
Lori gulped as she waited for the elevator. She'd done interviews like this before, but this was the Daily Planet. She wiped her damp palms against her thighs and took a deep breath as the elevator doors slid open with a soft sigh of air. She stepped forward into the carpeted interior.
"Newsroom," she said.
"Hold the elevator!" a voice called.
"Wait," she told the elevator's computer.
A second later a tall, young man, his dark hair ruffled, ducked through the doors. He glanced down at her with a wide smile. "Thanks…oh, hi, Ms. Lyons."
"Hello, Mr. Kent," Lori said. She gave him a timid smile.
"Here for your interview?" he asked.
She nodded. "I'm kind of nervous."
"You'll do fine,' he assured her. "Our editor, Mr. Olsen, was pretty impressed when I told him about you." He grinned. "Besides, he was really pleased you gave him the chance to nail that set of stuffed shirts at the university."
"Yep." Clark Kent nodded vigorously. "He knew there was a problem with the security situation, but no one would speak up before. Between you and Superman, the situation's improving and the Board of Trustees is asking some embarrassing questions."
"I guess it's just as well that I graduate in June," Lori said. "I'm not very popular with them right now."
"June, huh?" He looked thoughtful. "You must carry a pretty heavy load at college to graduate so early."
"A little, but I got in a year early, too," she explained. "That helps."
"Oho! A brain!" Clark didn't act as if that was a bad thing like so many others did. "Sounds like you'll fit in well at the Planet. Here we are."
The doors swished open on the words. Clark let her exit first. "Come on. I'll take you to Mr. Olsen's office."
Lori gulped and nodded.
John Olsen was a dark-haired, slender man, probably in his early to mid forties, Lori guessed. He had a certain air of authority, even relaxed as he was, leaning casually back in his chair when they entered the editor's office.
"Um, Mr. Olsen, this is…"
"Lori Lyons." The man sat up. "So you're the young lady who caused all the fuss over at State." He chuckled. "Congratulations, Ms. Lyons. You managed something I've been trying to do for years."
Lori felt herself turning red. "Well, it helped to have been one of the victims…and to have Superman and Mr. Kent to back me up."
Olsen nodded. "So, I have your resume here. I've been reading it. Not bad. You were the editor of your high school paper, and now editor of the NTSU Clarion as well. You graduate this June, correct?"
"You're prepared to start at the bottom and work your way up?"
"Of course, sir."
"Why do you want to work here?"
Lori felt her eyes widen. "Why? Isn't it obvious? There's no other news agency on Earth like the Daily Planet!"
Olsen grinned at the response. "I guess I can't argue with that. All right, Ms. Lyons, we'll give you a try. You're on probationary status. We'll expect you here every Saturday from eight to noon until June. You'll start full time the day after graduation. If things work out — we'll see what develops. Agreed?"
Lori consciously closed her mouth and nodded. "Yes, sir!"
"Good. Clark, why don't you show her around?"
"Yes, sir." Clark opened the door for Lori. "Come on, Ms. Lyons. Let me give you the grand tour."
"Who's the little girl, Clark?" The tall, platinum blond regarded Lori down the bridge of her nose. Lori bristled.
"This is Lori Lyons, Andrea," Clark replied levelly. "The Planet's new intern. Lori, this is Andrea Waltham, the Planet's gossip columnist."
"Oh." Andrea raised a supercilious eyebrow, then turned toward Clark, obviously dismissing Lori as unimportant. She placed her hands on Clark's shoulders and snuggled close to him. Lori observed the woman's fringe benefits pressed against Clark's chest with a twinge of irritation. It was one thing if Clark had welcomed the attention, but from the expression on his face, it was the last thing he wanted.
Clark removed her hands with a firm gesture. "I'm sorry, Andrea, I'm showing Ms. Lyons around the Planet right now. Excuse me." He moved sideways, leaving the woman standing in the middle of the newsroom with a flush of humiliation and annoyance on her face.
"Now," Clark said, as if the previous incident hadn't happened, "this is the sports desk."
*** Lori paid close attention as Clark steered her around the Pit, apparently taking in everything. When they reached the end, Clark escorted her to the elevator. "Do you think you'll remember everything?"
"If I don't, I'll ask," Lori said.
Clark grinned. "Good idea."
"I noticed the photos," Lori said. She pointed to the clustered photos all along the hallway, extending in both directions. "Is that you?"
Clark glanced at the photo of himself, standing with Lois as they accepted their first mutual Kerth award. "That was taken in 1998, the team of Lane and Kent," he said. "They were one of the legendary reporting teams in the history of the Daily Planet. There's Norcross and Judd on the other side. All these photos are of famous journalists from the Planet's history."
Lori nodded, returning to the photo of Lane and Kent. "If he wasn't wearing glasses, he'd look a lot like you."
"I suppose that's reasonable," Clark said. "A lot of my family have worked for the Daily Planet. I guess reporting runs in the blood."
"I guess so." Lori moved to examine another photo. "Clark Kent II?"
"The grandson of the first Clark Kent," Clark explained, wishing she would drop the subject. Lori was too observant for his own good. It was just as well that he hadn't planned on keeping the truth a secret from her for long. "He was an investigative reporter, and later an editor here, right after James Olsen."
"'Olsen?" Lori asked. "Like Mr. Olsen?"
"His great grandfather."
"That's interesting," Lori said. "It looks like the Planet is almost a family business."
Clark smiled. "Let's say the Olsens and the Kents have a lot of ties to the Daily Planet."
"So, what do you think of her?" Clark asked some time later, after Lori had departed for the university.
John Olsen quirked an eyebrow at him. "So she's Great-grandma, huh? You're sure of that, Gramps?"
Clark made a face. "I wish you wouldn't call me that. Officially, I'm your second cousin, once removed. But you remember what H.G. Wells told me."
"It still seems kind of — well, far-fetched."
"It would — if I hadn't seen the proof. I knew when I met her. Just like you knew when you met Marilyn."
"Yeah." His editor/great grandson nodded reluctantly. "I believe you. 'Superman doesn't lie'." He smiled wryly. "It's funny how that particular part of Kryptonian heritage carried over when the other parts didn't."
Clark sighed. "I'm sorry, John."
The editor shook his head. "I'm not. Dad and I were the only non-super ones in the family. Mom had to balance two careers, and eventually so did Carrie and Aaron. I combined my career with the family business…you know?"
"Making a difference doesn't mean I had to have super powers. You've told me about my great grandfather Olsen often enough. He made a difference."
"A big one," Clark said, soberly. "Jimmy was someone pretty special." He glanced up at the row of photos of previous editors of the Daily Planet: Perry White, James Olsen, C.J. Kent II… "I miss him, you know?"
"Yeah, he was a great old guy. Sharp as he could be to the last."
Clark smiled. "When I met him he wasn't out of his teens. He was a gofer here in the Planet when we were just a newspaper. He worked his way up to editor…and somewhere along the line he figured out the truth about me and kept it to himself for years. I didn't find out until one day when he stepped in to give me a very credible alibi in front of a really nosy tabloid snoop who'd been sniffing after me for weeks…" Clark shook his head. "He'd always been a good friend, but it wasn't until then that I knew how good."
The two men were silent for a moment, contemplating the picture, then Clark looked away. "So, what's your opinion of Ms. Lyons?" he asked. "I don't think she'd like to think she's just being hired because of me."
"She wasn't," John said. "Your request got her the interview, nothing more. I don't do favoritism here. Her resume and what I saw of her got her the spot. She'll have to hold her own from now on."
"Good," Clark said. "I think that's all she'd expect."
"I wish I understood all this, though. She looks a lot like the early pictures of Lois Lane, but is she Lois Lane?"
"Of course not," Clark said, quietly. "She's Lori Lyons. She was Lois, Lulu, Loisette, and who knows how many other women throughout the past. Each one was the same, but different, just as I was. I was the 'Fox', the 'Lone Rider'…" He grimaced slightly. "There were both similarities and differences. The thing that counts is that she's what H. G. Wells called my 'soul mate'. That's the part that's the same."
"I'm not even going to try to make sense out of that," John said. "I'll take your word for it."
"Good, because I'm not sure I make sense of it either." Clark gave a rueful grin. "What I know in my heart isn't something I can explain, but I know that I've found her again. Now all I have to do is figure out how to explain it to her, and how not to make the mistakes I made the first time around."
"She's seen you up close as Superman. Do you think she'll make the connection?"
Clark shrugged. "Well, I don't have the glasses anymore, but I've found that behavior is a much better disguise than glasses anyway. That was what gave me away to Lois — a gesture that both Clark and Superman made. I don't intend to wait until she guesses this time. Something I finally realized was that it didn't matter which identity she fell in love with, because both sides were just me. Lois wasn't shallow. In the long run it wouldn't have made any difference, and I don't think it will with Lori."
Graduation day came at last. Lori couldn't believe it. As she crossed the stage to receive her diploma, she could literally feel her knees shaking. In spite of everything, she had made it.
Her mother and father and her older sister sat in the third row of seats, next to Brad and his family, and three rows behind them sat Clark Kent.
She'd been surprised when he'd asked her last Saturday at work if she minded his attending her graduation. She was flattered, to say the least. Clark was so nice, and his looks…well, she could certainly understand why every woman in the office, even the very much married ones, had at least a mild crush on him. Andrea Waltham was openly on a crusade to bring the tantalizingly hard-to-get Mr. Kent into her bed, but from appearances had not yet succeeded. Lori admitted, very privately, and only to herself, that she was attracted to him, too, but she had absolutely no intentions of becoming involved with anyone in the near future. She had a career to build first. She certainly had no aversion to the male of the species, but relationships of that sort interfered with a woman's career advancement. She could hear her mother's words as clearly as if she were speaking. Mariann Lyons had given up a promising career as a business consultant to marry and have children. She'd told Lori that a thousand times. Of course, many women continued their careers after marriage, Lori knew, but somehow it hadn't worked out for her mother. Lori had no intentions of taking the risk.
She received her diploma and shook hands with the string of university bigwigs waiting in line. She had no illusions about this part of the ceremony. They were as glad to get rid of her as she was to graduate and get out of here. They hadn't heard the last of her, though. This was one project she intended to watch, and if they started to backslide on security measures again she had every intention of calling them on it. She wouldn't be an intern forever.
The rest of the ceremony passed in a blur. Lori found herself repeatedly wiping sweat from her brow. The sun beat down on the assembled crowd mercilessly, and she was very glad she had remembered the sunscreen today or she would have burned to a crisp. As it was, she could feel her makeup running.
At last, it was over. With the others, she flung her cap into the air. She was through!
No, she reminded herself a moment later, she was just beginning. Her career stretched out ahead of her, full of possibilities.
A moment later she was surrounded by her family. Her niece and nephew, ages six and nine, were frankly bored, but her mother and father were gratifyingly proud of her. Marcy, who had been a successful model for the last five years, smiled at her with just a touch of patronization.
"So, Lori, now that you've got your degree, do you have a job?"
Lori was used to it. She'd always been highly competitive with her older sister, although their interests lay in radically different directions.
"As a matter of fact, I do," she said. She hadn't told Marcy about her job at the Daily Planet. The two of them didn't correspond that much, and since Marcy lived and worked in New York at a high fashion modeling agency, they hadn't seen each other in over a year. Besides, she had wanted to spring it on them all. Marcy had been so certain that a career in journalism wasn't for her "baby sister". She smiled back with just a hint of triumph. "I start full time at the Daily Planet tomorrow." She beckoned to Clark, who had been standing quietly in the background. "Everyone, this is a friend of mine from the Planet, Clark Kent. Clark, these are my mom and dad, my brother Brad, his wife Sharon, and their kids Joel and Susanne. And this is my sister, Marcy."
For an instant Marcy's jaw dropped slightly. Lori could understand that. Clark's striking good looks caught the female eye, to say the least, and Marcy was anything but indifferent to a handsome man, judging by the number of guys she had gone through in the past five years. Belatedly she wondered if she had made a mistake, introducing her admittedly beautiful sister to Clark, and pushed down a small pang of jealousy. She had no claim on him, that was certain, but she suddenly did not want Clark to turn into a pile of mush because of Marcy.
Clark had watched Lori's interaction with her sister with interest and a good deal of carefully hidden amusement. It was obvious to him that there was a good deal of sibling rivalry between the two young women. He shook hands with her family, amid the murmurs of "pleased to meet you", one eye on Lori. Marcy quickly stepped forward, her long fingered, perfectly manicured hand outstretched.
"Hello," she purred, throatily. "I'm Marcy Lyons,"
"Pleased to meet you," he said, thinking that he had never seen such a difference between two sisters. Lori was a good six inches shorter than he, even wearing heels, with brown eyes and dark brown hair that just brushed her shoulders. Marcy stood barely an inch under his height, with long, catlike eyes of an exotic green and hair that fell to her waist in waves of shimmering gold. An expression of annoyance crossed Lori's face for a bare instant, but Clark could read the signs accurately enough. He gently withdrew his hand from Marcy's and moved casually to Lori's side.
"Clark Kent?" her father was saying. "Not the reporter?"
"Actually, yes," he said. "Ms. Lyons helped me with an investigation for the Planet a few months ago, which was how we met. Your daughter's going to be a very good reporter someday."
Lori appeared gratified at the praise, but Lori's mother eyed him narrowly. "So you came to her graduation?"
"Of course," Clark said, calmly. "Ms. Lyons is a friend of mine. I'm also covering the graduation for the Planet. My editor thought it would make a good human interest angle." Only Lori saw the faint twitch of his lips, and he saw her turn slightly away to hide a smile. He continued to chat easily with Lori's family as they moved toward the street.
There was something familiar about Lori's brother, Brad. Surely, he had met the man before, but in completely different circumstances.
Then he had it. This was Commander Bradley Lyons, the captain of the big colony ship, "Mayflower", set to begin its historic five-year trip to Alpha Centauri next month. As Superman, he'd met the officer six months ago at the EPRAD Space Center in Houston. Brad was a tall, impressive man, a good ten years older than Lori, who resembled her and their father more closely than either did Marcy.
"You're Commander Lyons," he said. "I thought you looked familiar."
Brad nodded and grinned cheerfully. "That's me. We haven't met before, have we?"
"I've seen your picture," Clark said, "but Lori never mentioned you."
"She wasn't supposed to. We've tried to keep our family life private."
"I completely understand that," Clark said. "Don't worry, my article won't mention you. It's supposed to focus on the graduates."
"I appreciate that," Brad said. He glanced down at his youngest sister. "So what was this investigation you helped with, Lor?"
"You didn't tell them?" Clark asked, surprised.
Lori ducked her head sheepishly. "I didn't want Mom to worry, and she would have."
"Oh, one of those," Brad said, comprehending at once.
"Yeah, I'll tell you about it later," Lori said.
"Okay," Brad said, sounding cheerful. "I guess it was more than your usual pickle, huh?"
"Kind of." Lori glanced nervously at the figures of her parents some ten feet ahead. "It turned out all right, though."
"That's a relief," Marcy said. "One of these days you're going to get into something you can't get out of, Lori. Then where will you be?"
Lori didn't answer. Clark could read the irritation in her body language at Marcy's remark. He said nothing, reflecting that risk-taking must be part of the package with Lori's persona, just as dual identities seemed to be his. It brought a wave of nostalgia.
They reached the Lyons' rented vehicle and Lori turned to him. "Clark, it was awfully sweet of you to come to my graduation. Will you be coming to dinner with us?"
He shook his head. "I've got this article to finish, and a source to meet this evening. It was nice to meet your family, though." He smiled. "Better enjoy your last day of freedom. I'll see you at the Planet tomorrow."
Lori looked a little disappointed, but nodded. "I'm looking forward to it."
As Clark walked away down the sidewalk, Mariann Lyons glanced after him, then turned to Lori.
"He's very handsome. I hope you're not thinking of any sort of romantic relationship with him."
"Mom!" Lori squashed the urge to vigorously defend herself. "Mr. Kent is just a friend, nothing more."
"So I understand. But these things happen, and anything like that could severely hamper your career. You know that."
"Mom," Lori said, patiently, "I know. Please don't start that. Clark is just being nice, and he had a job to do."
"Mariann," Robert Lyons' voice broke in, "I'm sure Lori knows what's best for her."
"I just don't want her career being short-circuited because of a man," Lori's mother continued sharply. "I had a promising career that I had to give up — "
Robert Lyons didn't flinch. He was used to it, Lori thought, but for the first time it occurred to her to wonder why her mother constantly brought up the fact that marriage to him had ended her career. And why had it? Mariann could have continued doing what she wanted. She had never seen her father so much as try to control anything she did.
"Mom," Brad said, "we've all heard this before. I think you can trust Lori to handle her own career. She's done all right so far."
Lori sincerely hoped this wouldn't degenerate into another family argument. It was the last thing she needed today. For an instant she wished Clark had stuck around.
Her mother looked annoyed, but at that moment, Susanne announced her need to visit the restroom. Lori jumped at the opportunity. "I'll take her. There's one in Ford Hall, right over there. Come on, Suzy." She grasped her niece's hand.
"I'll come, too," Brad said. "Back in a few."
"I hope Mom doesn't start that old saw again," he said, as soon as they were out of earshot of the group. "She just does it to make Dad feel guilty, you know."
"I guess," Lori said.
"She quit her career because she hated it," Brad said. "Haven't you figured that out by now, sis? Dad didn't make her stop; she wanted to. She just didn't want to admit it."
Lori absorbed that in silence for several seconds as they hurried across the emerald lawn toward Ford Hall. "I wondered," she said. "The restrooms are around this way."
They walked around to the left side of the building. "Back in a minute, Brad. Come on, Suzy."
A few moments later, Lori escorted her niece from the building. The child, no doubt tired of her enforced good behavior for the last several hours, took off across the lawn at a gallop in the direction of the car.
"Before we go back, I wanted to talk to you, Lori," Brad said.
"Yeah. I need you to help me."
"Sure." Lori agreed at once. She and Brad had always been much closer than either one had been to Marcy, in spite of the eleven year age difference.
"Can you keep something for me?"
"No problem. What is it?"
"It's a package. Here." Brad withdrew a small, wrapped box from his pocket. "Don't let anyone see it, okay?"
"I don't have time to explain. Let's just say it's insurance. If something happens to me, for some reason, take it to…" He paused. "Give it to Mr. Kent, and tell him what I said. He'll know what to do with it, and I trust his reputation. And after the ship takes off, give it to him, anyway. Okay?"
"Are you in some kind of trouble?"
Her brother shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. I'm hoping this will make sure that I'm not. Don't open it unless something happens to me, though, at least until after the launch. Can I count on you?"
Lori took the little object and stuffed it into her purse. "Of course you can. But — "
"I'll explain later, if I have the chance. Thanks, sis. You're a lifesaver." He glanced at the crowd of people waiting for them. "We're taking you to the Lexor for dinner. We better hurry. Everyone needs to get ready. Mom and Dad are catching the ten o'clock flight back to Los Angeles, and Marcy's due in New York in time for some big, midnight fashion show at Harriman's Emporium, with a bunch of foreign buyers."
It figured, Lori thought. It seemed that all the family get-togethers were rushed these days. At least they'd come to see her graduate. She just wished…oh, well. No use crying over what wasn't possible.
She hurried after Brad.
As soon as he was out of sight, Clark spun into Superman and made a fast ascent to a thousand feet. From that height, the university grounds looked like a wide, irregular patch of green, spotted with white buildings, surrounded by the steel and concrete of the sprawling city of Metropolis.
A police car floated leisurely past on its regular patrol, and the driver waved cheerfully at him. He waved back absently, hovering almost motionless above the grounds, eavesdropping shamelessly on the conversation below him.
Lori's mother was a definite stumbling block, he was thinking a few minutes later. He had the feeling that Mariann Lyons felt threatened by her ambitious daughter. Fortunately, her parents appeared to live in Los Angeles, judging from Brad Lyons' comment. That gave him a slight advantage.
From what he had seen of her and them, Lori's family seemed to be Traditionalists, but it didn't look as if they were strict followers. Her sister certainly didn't fit the mold, anyway. He grinned slightly at the thought. Lori's apparent jealousy was a good sign; at least it seemed so.
Well, his first goal was just to become a good friend, without applying pressure of any sort, no threat to her independence — not that he would do that, anyway. If he had learned anything over his very long life span, that was something that had been drilled in indelibly. After that, he would let her know about his dual identity…and they could go from there. Lori might have Lois's soul, he reminded himself again, but she wasn't Lois. She was young, barely 21 years old, unsure of herself, in spite of her obvious intelligence and the confident manner she put on, and could easily be overwhelmed. Whatever he did, he must not make her feel inferior — as if a woman with Lois's soul could ever be inferior to anyone, he thought. But she wouldn't know that. This wasn't going to be easy, but it would be worth it in the end. Of that, he was certain.
That conversation with Brad, though… Silently, he decided to try to keep an eye on the officer. He'd alert Ultra Woman, his granddaughter Rhonda, who patrolled the Houston area, to watch out for him. The last thing he needed was for something to happen to Lori's brother.
In the meantime…
Slowly, he drifted downward and dropped lightly to the sidewalk as Brad and Lori arrived at the car.
"Superman?" Brad Lyons said.
"Commander Lyons." Clark nodded in a friendly way to Lori's brother. "I just came by to congratulate Ms. Lyons on her graduation." He turned to Lori with a smile. "I suspect the Daily Planet will never be the same, Lori, but they're lucky to get you."
"Thank you, Superman." Lori sounded a little breathless.
"Is this your whole family?" he asked.
Lori nodded, and introduced her companions to the Man of Steel. Clark shook hands a second time with the members of Lori's family, taking care to pay special attention to the pop-eyed children, then turned back to Lori. "I also wanted to thank you for your assistance. If you ever need any help from me, just call."
"I — I will," Lori stammered. "How — "
He grinned suddenly. "'Help, Superman' is usually sufficient."
"'Assistance'?" Mariann Lyons said, sharply.
"Yes," Clark was careful to sound casual. "An article written by Ms. Lyons helped to uncover a problem with the University's security measures. It resulted in a considerable improvement in safety for the students. She did an excellent job. I never had a chance to thank her, so I thought I'd take the opportunity." He lifted off slowly and hovered for an instant. "Congratulations again, Lori." He drifted slowly upward until he was a good thirty feet above their heads, then made a spectacular exit.
His article about the NTSU graduation was quickly finished, then Clark set out on his evening patrol. He made a point of letting Superman be seen several times each day in unexpected places, as well as circling over the city in plain view. All five of the super-heroes that patrolled Metropolis did that. It helped keep the crime rate down.
Metropolis was not the city he had known a century ago. It covered a lot more ground, and its towers and spires reached far up into the sky. It's population had more than quadrupled since he had first set foot in it that day in front of the Daily Planet — the same day he had first met Lois Lane. Whatever Utopia they were supposed to found some day in the future, according to H.G. Wells, certainly hadn't arrived yet, and he hadn't seen HG or his old Nemesis, Tempus, for nearly ninety years. It had gotten so he had more or less dismissed them from his memory. Of course, H.G. Wells and Tempus might not realize how long Superman would actually be around. He certainly had no intention of ever telling anyone but his own family that he was the original Superman. It made for fewer complications that way, and ever since the Decade of Unrest, sixty years ago, so many records had been lost, destroyed, or simply never made in the first place that trying to track many of the births, deaths, marriages and family lines before that time had become all but impossible.
Flying well above the city, but not so far up that the brilliant colors of his uniform couldn't be seen, Clark began his patrol.
Fortunately, he didn't have to cover all that ground himself. Coasting through the cool, evening air, a flash of blue whisked past him, performed a complicated loop the loop and came to a stop beside him.
"Hi, Supes!" Aaron Olsen, John's older brother, AKA Blue Lightning, was grinning cheerfully at him. Seeing Aaron unexpectedly always made him want to do a double-take. It was like looking at his young friend Jimmy all over again, when he had been a photojournalist at the Planet. Aaron could have been John's son, rather than his older brother, he thought. The disparity between the two was astonishing. Aaron's physical appearance had obviously come down to him from Tom Olsen, Jimmy's grandson, but the telltale super-powers had come from his mother, and with them the slowed aging process.
"Hi, Aaron. How's the newest Olsen?"
"She's fine," his great grandson said. "I'll try to remember to send the pictures over later. Henry's as proud as he can be. You'd think nobody ever had a new baby before."
"Well, he and Lena never have," Clark said, reasonably. "How does it feel to reach the status of grandfather?"
"Pretty good, actually," Aaron said. "She looks like Mom, I think, and she's definitely got your eyes. Maybe she'll be lucky and not inherit Henry's powers, too."
"Who knows, she might like 'em," Clark said.
"Could be." Aaron tilted his head. "Do you hear what I hear?"
"Yeah, sounds like that demonstration at the shuttleport is getting out of hand. We'd better go check it out."
The riot police were already there when Superman and Blue Lightning arrived, but they welcomed the arrival of the super heroes with relief. Several of the demonstrators had chained themselves to the colonist shuttle, evidently with the intention of preventing its scheduled takeoff. Clark and Aaron moved in and quickly broke apart the chains, used their laser vision to cut the steel pipes the protesters had slipped their arms through, to prevent the police from removing them, and cleared the launch pad. The shuttle would be able to make its launch window without difficulty. One more load of the Centauri colonists was headed for the moon and the big ship.
Clark watched the police vans driving away, laden with the demonstrators, and shook his head. Aaron wasn't so restrained, however their height in the air prevented any of the vid cameras from recording his comments. Below them, Clark could see Police Lieutenant Chow standing on the tarmac, scowling as the last of the vans pulled away.
"Come on," he said.
Together, the two super heroes descended slowly to the ground. "Anything else we can do, Velma?" Aaron asked.
"Yeah." The woman glanced at him. "If one of you guys can check over the shuttle just to be sure no one left any little presents on board, I'd appreciate it."
"Gaia's Children again?" Clark asked.
"Who else?" Chow scowled more deeply.
"I'll do it," Aaron said and lifted off toward the shuttle.
"Are you expecting trouble?" Clark thought Velma Chow looked more sardonic than usual, even for her.
"Well, you know this batch, Superman," Chow said. "There hasn't been any real violence yet, but any hint of humans living anywhere but on Earth throws them into the screaming tizzies. They've just barely accepted the idea that the colonies on the moon and Mars haven't brought about the end of the world."
"They're still waiting for that," Clark said. "One of their high priests, or whatever they call themselves, was on the news last night reminding us that we're betraying Mother Earth by abandoning her to the problems we created and promising that she'll exact retribution — I think that was the phrase."
"I saw it," Chow said, sourly.
"So what were they up to this time, as if I don't know."
"Trying to prevent the colonists from reaching the Lunar base." Chow shoved her hands deeper into her pockets. "I guess the logic is that if they can't get to the ship, the ship can't take off."
Clark shook his head. "You've got your hands full all right. If there's anything any of us can do to help — all you need to do is ask."
"I know. Thanks, Superman." Velma Chow's expression softened. "This should be over in five weeks. Once the ship launches, there'll be no point to it."
"I think you're being optimistic," Aaron said, as he dropped to the ground beside them again. "The shuttle's clear. You can give them the okay, now."
Velma Chow spoke briefly into her wrist talker, then looked back at the two super heroes. "We'd better get out of here. Two minutes to launch."
"Can I give you a lift?" Aaron asked, politely.
The woman nodded, and together they cleared the tarmac.
"Morning, Lori." Fred, the office copy boy, greeted her as she stepped off the elevator for her first full day of work at the Daily Planet.
It was funny how different she felt today, she thought. Last night she'd spent her first night in the one-room flat that was her new apartment. It wasn't exactly a luxury accommodation with it's tiny cooking unit, a refrigeration cubicle the size of her overnight case, two chairs, a table barely two feet by two, and a sofa hardly longer than she was to sleep on, but it was all hers. She'd moved in most of her possessions the day before, including the small vid screen that had been a present from Brad, lined her books up on the single wall shelf, and arranged her clothing in the pocket-sized closet and tiny dresser. Even the envelope-sized bathroom with its micro-mini shower couldn't depress her, because it was hers. Give it a few weeks, she thought, and she'd make it look like home.
"Lori!" Clark had emerged from the stairwell to her left. "I need some research done. Find me everything you can on that Earth-cult — 'Gaia's Children'. Have you heard of them?"
"Those flakes? Who hasn't? One of my roommates last year was trying to convert me. I told her not to waste her breath."
Clark grinned. "Well, I need everything you can find on them, yesterday if possible."
"I'll do my best," Lori said. Wow, the day was sure starting off with a bounce, she reflected as she hurried to her tiny desk in the corner. She dropped her handbag under the desk and kicked off her shoes while snapping on her computer with the other hand. Gaia's Children, of all the various nutball groups populating the planet was, in her opinion, one of the craziest, but — as her father was fond of saying — it took all kinds to make a world.
That had been clearly demonstrated last evening at the Lexor, she recalled, while telling the AI what to look for. They had just ordered dinner when four people settled down at the table next to theirs. Being naturally curious — what Brad called her 'reporter's instinct' — Lori had covertly eavesdropped on the quartet: a middle-aged woman and three men of varying ages — her three husbands. It turned out they were tourists from the Martian colonies, celebrating their latest wedding — the one that added the youngest guy to their group.
The custom was apparently quite common on Mars, she knew, where there was a distinct shortage of women; approximately one woman to six men, if she remembered correctly, but it was seen occasionally on Earth as well. It wasn't something she would care to try though, she thought. But speaking of all kinds, Marcy, herself, was another example. She'd been through seven six-month marriage contracts in the last five years. Her explanation had been simple: she got bored easily. Lori didn't think she could handle that one either. She just hoped Marcy didn't have any intentions of trying to add Clark to her collection.
Speaking of Clark… She sneaked a glance at him, leaning slightly forward to study something on his computer screen. Coming home to someone like Clark might not be so bad…some day, anyway. And when she did marry, she wanted it to be for keeps.
In spite of the fact that her Mom was awfully good at promoting guilt both in Dad and her three children, Lori had been happy growing up, even as the surprise third child that no one expected. She and Brad had been inseparable from the first. She'd seen holograms of him toting her around on his back as a six-month-old baby, a big grin on his face. Yes, she'd like to marry and have a Traditional family some day, but she swore to herself that the guilt trips were out. Having lived with them for twenty-one years, that was something no husband or child of hers would ever have to endure.
She cast a final glance at Clark as he crossed the room toward the coffee dispenser, admiring the way the material stretched across the seat of his pants as he walked, then pulled her gaze forcibly away and back to the computer screen. Quit fantasizing! she chided herself. He's probably got a girl for every day of the week, and even if he doesn't, why would he look at you?
The computer had produced four references to Gaia's Children, and the information on the web sites was mostly stuff she already knew, but she carefully made copies of the relevant paragraphs. She was obviously going to have to try some other resources if Clark needed to know anything more about them.
"Any luck?" Clark set a cup of coffee on her desk and leaned over her shoulder to look at the screen.
"Not yet," she said. "Thanks for the coffee."
"You're welcome. Three sugars, half milk, right?"
"Yeah." She sipped it cautiously. "Perfect. Mom tells me I'm going to get fat on this."
"I don't think you need to worry about it yet," he said, absently. "You know, for a cult that wants converts, they sure don't tell you much, do they?"
"No," she agreed. "At least not here. I'll see what else I can come up with, but I don't know…maybe all the really important stuff is restricted to their top echelon or something."
"Just do your best," Clark said. "If the information isn't there we'll try a different approach."
"Well, there must be some stuff about them in the morgue files. I'll try those, next. This thing says they date back to before the first Moon colony. That's a long time."
The group, Gaia's Children, Lori's research found, had started out as an ordinary environmentalist movement early in the Twenty-First Century. They had believed originally that the damage man had done to the planet needed to be repaired. When the first Lunar colony was founded, they began to change. Apparently they believed that Man was abandoning his obligation to repair the planet in favor of a move to other, fairer worlds. Never mind that the Lunar colonies lived under great domes, and burrowed deeply into the barren satellite to make their habitat, Gaia's Children began to remake their philosophy into one wherein the desertion of Mother Earth by humanity would signal the end of the human race. The colonization of the Red Planet, under conditions quite similar to those on the moon, only served to further alarm them. What had originally begun as a fairly praiseworthy attempt to repair the planet was rapidly becoming a religious cult.
Lori's research brought to light facts which pretty much tallied with the little he knew of the Gaia movement, and all further information he had gathered in the succeeding week had done nothing to dispel the concern he felt over the matter. Superman cut through the cooling air of Metropolis on his evening patrol, mulling the pattern over in his mind.
In all his memory, the movement had never been associated with violence as a course of action, except for the occasional random vandalism by over-enthusiastic demonstrators. He didn't know why he was worried, but something was nagging at him, and his tenacious mind didn't want to let it go.
He banked slightly above Suicide Slum. Glancing down, he found himself wondering if this huge, festering sore on the city's side would vanish with the coming of Utopia. That was definitely one thing he wouldn't miss.
He continued on his way, covering the last leg of the patrol on his return to the older section of the city where his apartment was located. The flat now occupied by Lori Lyons, by coincidence, was only a few blocks away.
It was while he was making his final approach that his super-hearing picked up her voice.
It wasn't exactly a scream — more a cry of surprise and alarm, but he instantly reversed course and poured on the speed.
Lori was standing before the open door of her flat, staring in consternation at the scene before her as his feet hit the hall carpet at her side. "What's the matter?"
Silently, she pointed.
The flat had been burglarized. Lori's few possessions had been tossed about carelessly, her closet door gaped wide open, and the drawers of her dresser and the small table had been yanked out and lay face down on the floor. Clothing lay on the carpet along with two sofa cushions, dishes and music discs. The whole place had been turned upside down.
Quickly, he fanned his x-ray vision about the area, making certain that no one was hiding in the tiny bathroom or anywhere else within the flat. "There's no one inside, now," he said. "You can go in."
Lori stepped cautiously forward, looking around her with a strained expression. Clark put a hand lightly on her arm, and she jumped.
"Sorry," he said. "Are you all right?"
She nodded jerkily.
"Is anything missing?" he asked.
"Look around," he said.
"I don't have much," she said, her voice shaking slightly. "Whoever did this sure picked the wrong place to rob." She gave him a tremulous smile and began to step gingerly about the little room as if she were walking on eggshells. Clark relaxed slightly. If she could joke about it, however feebly, she would be all right.
Within a few moments she had completed her examination and turned to face him, looking puzzled.
"As far as I can tell, nothing's missing. They didn't even take the vid screen!"
Clark glanced around the small room. Curtainless windows on one wall let in the pinkish rays of the setting sun. He suppressed a grimace at the size of Lori's flat, but reminded himself that to her this was her place, her little home that had been invaded by strangers. By the speed at which her pulse was racing, she was a good deal more upset than she was letting on.
"You're sure nothing's missing?" he asked.
"Pretty sure. I guess I didn't have anything worth taking."
"Do you want me to call the police?"
She shook her head. "I don't see why. I guess I was lucky."
"I guess so." He glanced around and picked up the single chair that was lying on its side in the corner. "Why don't you sit down? I can have this picked up in a minute."
"Oh no, I — "
He ignored her, shifting into high speed, and within a few seconds had straightened the entire room. Lori sank slowly onto the chair as he came to a stop in front of her. "There you are. All done."
"Wow," she said. "Thanks, Superman."
"You're welcome," he said, smiling. "I checked, by the way. Whoever did this broke your lock. Be sure you fasten the chain and that sliding one tonight, and have it fixed tomorrow, all right?"
"You're sure you'll be all right?"
"I'll be fine." Any other man, without super powers, would have been fooled, he knew. "Thanks an awful lot for the help."
"No problem." He took her hand for a moment, unwilling to leave while she was still shaken, but seeing no alternative. "If you get scared, yell, okay? I can be here in a flash."
"I will." He could see her straighten her shoulders. "I'll be fine."
"Lock your door after I leave, and if anyone knocks be sure you know who's on the other side before you open it. I have a few errands to finish, but I'll fly by and check on you later. Is that all right?"
She nodded. "I'd appreciate that."
"Okay, then." He strode to the door. "Good night, Lori."
A few moments later, he was on his way westward. The hardware stores in Metropolis were all closed at this hour, but a couple of time zones to the west they wouldn't be. Within a very few minutes he was headed east once more, a small paper bag clutched in one hand, leaving a hardware store proprietor scratching his head and wondering why on Earth Superman, of all people, would need a door lock.
Some twenty minutes after he had left Lori's apartment, Clark Kent, dressed in black slacks and a white polo shirt, open at the collar, and carrying a screwdriver and the newly purchased lock, was knocking at her door.
"Who is it?" Lori's voice called.
He heard her footsteps approaching the door, then silence for an instant while she checked through the peephole. Slowly, the door opened. "What are you doing here, Clark?" Lori asked. Then, as if aware of how she sounded, she added, "I didn't know you even knew where I lived."
"Superman told me about the break-in," he explained quickly. "I just happened to have an extra lock lying around, so I thought maybe I could help." He held up the lock and the screwdriver. "This isn't a fancy electronic one or anything so I think I can put it in for you without any problems."
Lori gulped. "Oh, Clark, you shouldn't have gone to the trouble. I'm sure I'd have been all right for one night."
"Probably," he agreed. "But Superman was a little worried, and so was I. This shouldn't take long." He regarded her more closely. "Are you okay?"
She nodded, gulped again and resolutely raised her chin. "I'll be fine. Really. It was a little scary, but Superman helped. Whoever it was didn't take anything, they just messed the place up."
"Okay, if you say so. Let me just fix this for you, though, all right? I'll feel better knowing you've got a good lock on your door."
She gave a slightly wobbly smile. "Okay. Thanks."
Lori watched Clark working on the lock with an odd feeling in her stomach, almost as if there were butterflies fluttering around in there. It sounded to her as if Superman had gone directly to Clark to let him know about her problem, and Clark had come at once to help. Not that she minded.
To keep busy, she made a pot of coffee, and began to look into the small larder for something to make for dinner.
"Are you planning on shredded wheat for dinner?" Clark was standing behind her when she turned, looking amused. "Or dill pickles on toast with ice cubes on the side sounds delicious."
She giggled. "I was going to go to the grocery store, but the break-in kind of got in the way."
"I sort of figured that." He appeared to make a decision. "Come on. I know a little family restaurant about three blocks from here. The food is really good."
She hesitated, thinking of her tight budget. He seemed to read her mind. "It's okay, I'm buying. It's the least I can do after what happened."
The temptation was too much. She gave in. She'd gotten to know Clark better over the last couple of months and knew he was a true gentleman — something rather rare in the modern day. Besides, she hadn't eaten since noon. "Okay, let me get my sweater."
"Here are your door keys." He handed them to her, waited while she retrieved her sweater, and let her precede him out the door.
The air was pleasantly cool as they left the old apartment building. The haze of city lights blurred out the stars; this wasn't new to Lori. Having grown up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, anything else would have been unusual. There had been one summer during her teen years that she had gone camping in the Grand Canyon with the family of her best friend. The week had been fun, but the solemn beauty of the stars blazing down at her from a pitch black sky had kept her awake at night. The unfamiliar sounds of the frogs and night insects made her rest an uneasy one, and the morning serenade of the birds had awakened her early every morning. She could sleep peacefully through the blare of horns, the wail of emergency sirens and the metallic symphony of trash cans being collected at five a.m. by the big garbage bots, but the territorial song of a mockingbird could jolt her out of sleep with her heart pounding.
She glanced at Clark, who was a solid presence walking beside her in the dimness. His face was shadowed, but she could see the flash of his teeth when he smiled, and she had to admit that she felt a lot safer with him here than she had a short time ago. It had been just a little spooky, sitting alone in her flat with the door's main lock broken. She didn't know why he should be taking the time to help her out tonight, but she was glad he had come over.
"Do you know Superman well?" she asked. "I mean, he must have talked to you right after he left my place."
"Superman and I are very close," Clark said. "I don't think anyone knows him better. He was worried about you."
"So, he told you?"
Clark shrugged. "Do you mind? He knew we were coworkers, and I live only a little way from you."
"No, I don't mind," Lori said. "I was glad you came, actually."
"Good." His smile flashed again. "My ego would never have recovered if you'd told me to get lost."
She laughed, amazed at how much better she felt. Then a little pang of guilt struck her. "I hope I'm not interfering with your plans for the evening."
"Nope. Dinner with a charming and intelligent young woman is much more attractive than watching golf replays and eating junk food," he said. "Besides, I need to talk to somebody with a fresh viewpoint. Something's bothering me about this Gaia's Children business, but I can't put my finger on it. Maybe you can spot what it is."
"Well, I don't know," Lori said, quickly suppressing the little thrill of pleasure at his description of her. It was nice to know he thought of her that way but he was just being himself. Everybody liked Clark. "I guess I can try."
"There's Kerry's," he said, changing to subject momentarily. "Let's get settled, then we can discuss the whole thing with something in our stomachs."
Lori's stomach growled on cue, to her acute embarrassment, but Clark didn't appear to notice. He opened the door for her and they proceeded into the restaurant.
Kerry's was small, but once inside Lori saw that it didn't lack for customers. A pretty hostess appeared almost at once and picked up two menus. "Hello, Mr. Kent. Would you like your usual place?"
"That would be fine," he said. "Glad to see you back, Amy. How's your mother?"
"She's getting better," Amy said. "She's replacing that darned carpet, too. If she'd listened to me and gotten rid of it six months ago she wouldn't have tripped and fallen down the stairs in the first place."
Clark smiled. "Well, it could have been worse. She could have broken more than just her arm and ankle. Is she going to be all right?"
"Yes, thank goodness. Here you are." Amy set the menus down on a small table in the rear of the restaurant. "Jake will be by in a minute to take your orders."
"Wow," Lori said, as Clark pulled her chair back for her and she took her seat. "You must come here a lot if they know your name."
Clark grinned. "I guess I come by every couple of weeks or so. They're nice people. Amy's husband is one of the cooks and is studying to be a gourmet chef. Her dad owns the place, and a lot of the family works here. I said it was a family restaurant and it is, in more ways than one."
"I can see that." Lori opened the menu. "Everything looks good," she said, after a moment.
"Take your time," Clark said. He fell silent, studying the menu.
Lori finally made her decision and looked up to see him watching her with a half-smile on his face.
"What?" she asked.
"Nothing. Here comes Jake." Lori glanced up as a young man of college age approached. He placed glasses of water in front of them.
"How are you folks this evening?" he asked.
"Just fine," Clark said.
"Have you decided?"
"I think so. Lori?"
She gave her order, hoping she wasn't overdoing it, then sat back in amazement as Clark ordered the most fat and cholesterol-filled dinner on the menu. How on Earth could he eat all that junk? she wondered, glancing surreptitiously at his muscular torso, imperfectly hidden by the light shirt. The man had a body to die for. The only solution must be that he worked out heavily.
"Would you like those drinks first, or with your meals?" Jake asked.
"With my meal," Lori said. Clark nodded agreement.
"Okay. It'll be ready in about fifteen minutes," Jake said. He departed with their order, and a moment later another youngster, probably of high school age, appeared to set silverware and napkins in front of them.
Lori looked around the homey little establishment. "This is really nice."
"I know. The cooking is wonderful, too. I've tasted worse in some of the most famous places in Europe. Of course, the food isn't all that exotic — just well-prepared."
"I guess that's what counts." Lori leaned back in her chair. "So, what did you want to talk to me about?"
"Oh, yeah. Something's bothering me about this Gaia bunch, and I can't quite put my finger on what it is." He picked up his spoon and began to draw patterns absently with it on the tablecloth. "You did the research. You know how they got where they are."
"Yes," Lori said. "You saw what I found. They were pretty harmless in the beginning, supported environmentally friendly policies, good land management, protested polluters, that sort of thing, but they've changed slowly, and I can't see that it's for the better. Have you heard any of their rhetoric lately?"
"A little. I read the examples you included, though." Clark was still making patterns on the tablecloth. "Pretty inflammatory stuff, to put it politely. I think that's what's been bothering me. It seems to me that there's been a slow, steady progression…"
"That's what I thought." Lori hesitated, then plunged ahead with what had been in the back of her mind since she had researched the history of Gaia's Children. "Look, I haven't got anywhere near the experience in investigative reporting that you have, but it seems to me this crazy idea they've got about Armageddon, if we try to colonize other planets, is dangerous. A lot of them really believe that stuff, and if they think the Mayflower is going to cause the end of the world, they might decide violence is justified. It scares me. I hope you're going to tell me I'm wrong, though."
He set the spoon down. "It makes sense. After all, if the world is at stake, what's a few lives if they can save the planet?"
"That's what I was thinking." Lori met his eyes. "It's not a very pleasant thought, is it?"
"No." Clark smiled with very little humor. "Thanks for letting me bend your ear over it."
"You're welcome," she said automatically. "It's only my opinion, though. I don't really have any evidence to back it up."
"Yes, you do," Clark said, seriously. "Everything you've found points that way. I just have the feeling that something's going to happen."
"Reporter's intuition?" Lori asked.
"Huh?" For a moment he looked surprised, then nodded. "I guess. I'm worried. What if, as a last resort, they target the Mayflower itself? There's going to be two thousand-plus people on board."
The thought was horrifying. Lori stared at him, appalled. "Do you think they might?"
"What do you think?" he asked.
She swallowed. "I think you might be right," she said, very reluctantly.
"Yeah." Clark picked up his water glass, sipped and set it down. "That's what I was afraid of."
"What are you going to do?"
Clark shrugged. "All this is speculation. I'm going to have to investigate and try to determine if there's any real fact to base it on. Maybe it will turn out to be nothing, but until I know for sure, I can't ignore it."
"My brother's family is going to be on that ship. If there's anything I can do to help you…I mean, I'm just an intern, but — "
"If I need you, I'll ask," Clark said, with a little smile. "Probably the best thing you can do to help me is to find out everything else you can on these people. Funding, who their leaders are, and their backgrounds…everything. Even the smallest detail could be significant."
"I'll start as soon as I can get at my computer," she promised. "If there's anything to find, I'll find it."
Clark smiled at her determination. "I'm sure you will. We've got four weeks until the launch. I guess we'd better make the most of it." He lifted his head. "Here comes our dinner."
Lori could smell it, and her mouth began to water. Jake arrived with a tray of food, set it on a nearby table and deftly transferred its contents to theirs. "There you go. A cup of tea, and a glass of milk, for you, right, Mr. Kent? And milk and a chocolate shake for you, Miss?" He set the drinks down neatly. "Will there be anything else?"
"Yeah," Clark said. "How about adding two orders of your dad's double chocolate fudge mousse for dessert?"
"Gotcha, Mr. Kent. Two orders of double chocolate fudge mousse." He picked up the tray. "Enjoy your dinner."
They ate in silence for several minutes. Lori hadn't eaten this well in nearly a week. Cooking had never been one of her passions, although she could prepare food well enough if she took the time. So far, though, she had been too rushed every morning and too tired after work every day to bother with more than scrambled eggs for breakfast or a quick frozen meal at night. Not to mention the fact that her supplies were getting low, and payday wasn't until next week.
Clark was watching her again, she realized, his expression unreadable. She raised her eyebrows. "What?"
"Nothing," he said. "I was just wondering where you grew up and what it was like being the youngest child in the family."
"Oh," Lori said. "Why?"
He shrugged. "Just because."
She grinned at the expression. "Oh, in that case…"
He laughed. "No, really. I just wondered."
"I grew up in LA," she said. "Out in the suburbs. Mom and Dad had only planned on two kids." She shrugged. "It turned out all right, though. Brad was eleven when I was born. He always fought with Marcy — Dad used to say it was because they were so close together in age — but he and I got along fine. One of my first memories is riding along in the seat he'd put on the back of his bicycle just for me. I always tagged along with him, and he never let other kids pick on me, so I guess I was pretty lucky. I really missed him when he went away to college after he graduated from high school." She looked down at her plate. "Pretty soon he's going to be going even farther away. I won't see him again for years."
"You're going to miss him, aren't you?" Clark said, sympathetically.
She nodded. "Yes, I am. But it's something he's always dreamed about. Ever since I was old enough to understand stuff like that, he's wanted to be part of the colonization project. That's why he went into the Space Service in the first place. Mom didn't want him to, of course. She wanted him to stay on Earth and be a doctor. I knew he'd never be happy if he didn't at least try to do what he wanted, so I urged him to go for it."
Clark smiled at her. "I think you're a pretty good sister," he said. "I'm sure Brad appreciates it."
She smiled a little. "I think he does. I just hope nothing goes wrong now, at the last minute." She shook herself abruptly. "So, where did you grow up, Clark?" she asked, changing the subject abruptly.
"On a farm in Kansas," he said. Lori saw a faint smile on his face.
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"No, I was an only child. It wasn't so bad, though. I had terrific parents."
"'Had'?" she asked, before she thought.
"Yes. They're both gone, now." He looked a little sad for a moment. "It was a long time ago."
"Oh, Clark, I'm sorry. Me and my big mouth."
"It's okay," he said. "They were great people, and most of my memories of them are good ones."
"Do you have any other family?" she asked. "You're not all by yourself, are you?"
"No. I have a lot of extended family," he said. "Some of them live here in Metropolis."
"That's good," she said, relieved. "I wondered, you know, if you did. And you've probably got girl friends, too. I mean, you know, a guy like you…" Oh, god, she thought, I'm babbling like a teenager again, and probably embarrassing him into the bargain!
He looked a little surprised. "'Like me'?" he repeated.
"Well, sure." Lori felt herself turning pink. "I mean, you're successful, and…and pretty okay-looking…and smart…"
He smiled. "Oh. No, I don't have a girlfriend…or a boyfriend, either."
"Nobody?" she asked, incredulously.
"No." His smile faded. "Not since my wife died. I've just never met the right person."
"Oh." Lori felt a little flustered. "I'm sorry. I'm too nosy for my own good. Or other people's, either. I get nervous, and I just can't seem to stop talking and saying stupid things."
"It's all right," he said. "I think it's a quality that's going to make you a very good reporter."
"You really think so?"
"Well, that and a few other characteristics."
"Oh." Lori didn't know what to say. She ate in silence for several minutes, watching him covertly. He didn't seem unhappy. Maybe she shouldn't be feeling sorry for him, but she did; a little, anyway.
"Was she pretty?" she blurted suddenly, surprising herself.
He didn't pretend to misunderstand the question. "She was the most beautiful person I've ever known," he said, simply.
"Oh," she said, again. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be asking you things like that. It probably doesn't feel very good to have me prying into your life."
"No, it's all right," he said. "I loved her very much, and we were very happy together, but she wouldn't have wanted me to quit living because she was gone. She would have been completely disgusted with me if I had." He smiled and shook his head slightly. "She told me that she expected me to go on, and to find someone else and be happy again, and she swore that if I didn't she'd come back and haunt me." He paused, and Lori thought that an arrested expression flickered across his face for an instant, but it was only an impression. "And I will, when I find the right person, if I can convince her that I'm a halfway decent bargain. That's all there is to it."
He didn't want to talk about it, Lori surmised. She was curious about the mysterious Mrs. Kent, but it would have been rude and inconsiderate…or even ruder and more inconsiderate than she had already been…to bring it up again. She took a final bite of food and realized with a shock that she had cleaned her plate. Jake was approaching, with perfect timing, bringing the chocolate mousse, and all thoughts of Clark's wife fled.
"Ohh," she breathed.
"I thought you'd like it," Clark said with a chuckle. "At least, all the chocolate wrappers in your trash can at the office led me to think so."
Lori giggled. "You figured right. This is wonderful!"
Clark looked pleased. "I'm glad you like it."
"This is interesting," Lori murmured softly to herself.
"What?" Clark, passing her desk, paused and bent over her shoulder. "Did you find something?"
"I don't know. Maybe. Look at this." She nodded at the computer's screen.
"What is it?"
"Well…" She hesitated. "I did something a little illegal. Do you mind?"
Clark looked startled. "What?"
"These are financial records for the whole Gaia organization," she explained. "Um…I kind of broke into their computer." She ducked her head and then realized Clark was grinning.
"Where did you learn how to do that?'
"Um…" Lori could feel her cheeks burning. "My best friend was really into computers, and we did a lot of this stuff while we were in high school. She was much better than I was, but I learned some of her tricks."
"I see. So, what do you have here?"
"Well, I wanted to see if the donor list that they released matched their private one."
"No. See this?" She indicated a name at the bottom of the page. "Most of their donors are private ones except this one."
"Uphardt and Branton?" Clark asked.
"Yeah. U&B Technologies. Look how much they donated, just last month."
Clark's eyebrows rose. "And this isn't on their public list of disclosures?"
"Nope. Look at this." She pulled up a different list. "See? Their assets don't match, and U&B doesn't appear at all. They aren't listed for previous months either, but I looked in the private files, and they definitely donated, so I checked U&B's publicly listed contributions, and Gaia doesn't show up there, either."
"Maybe a corporate slush fund," Clark reasoned. "But what is Gaia doing with it?"
"I'd sure like to know," Lori said. "It's too bad this evidence isn't legal. The regulators might be interested."
"Yeah," Clark said. "U&B Technologies…Where have I heard that name before?"
"I've never heard of it," Lori said.
"I have, but I don't remember where. Hey, Barry!"
Barry Marston, the business columnist, turned his head. "Yeah?"
"Have you ever heard of Uphardt and Branton Technologies?"
"Who are they?"
"They're a medium sized electronics firm that does a lot of work for the military."
"Um — " Lori spoke up timidly. "Do they have anything to do with the Mayflower — the colony ship?"
"Nope." Barry shook his head.
"Oh," Lori said.
"It's funny that you should ask that, though," Barry continued.
"Why?" Clark asked.
"Well, about ten years ago they were one of the companies bidding on the project — for the ship's electronics, you know. They were awarded the contract, but then an inspector caught them using substandard material and they lost it. It was awarded to Lockmead. U&B fought it in court for three years, but they finally lost."
"Oh," Clark said. "Thanks, Barry. I guess that's why the name sounded familiar." He turned back to Lori. "Can you make me a hard copy of those lists?"
"Sure." Lori gave her computer the instructions. "They'll be done in a minute."
"Good. I'm going to be doing a little snooping around. You keep going at this. Find me everything you can on Gaia, and on U&B Technologies."
She nodded. The copies slipped into their tray and she handed them to Clark. "There you go."
"Thanks. If John asks, tell him I'm following a lead, will you?" He was already on his way toward the elevators.
Two hours later there was no sign of Clark, but Lori had amassed more information about U&B's corporate structure, and about the Gaia organization. The cult's headquarters was, naturally, in Metropolis, and from their public records, she had acquired the names of the leadership, none of which meant anything to her. Another search, however, brought to light another name: Sandra Callahan, an accountant for the group — which was good, because the previous year Sandra had been the roommate who had tried so fervently to convert her to the Gaia movement.
Lori's eyes narrowed as she read the name. This was an avenue she hadn't explored yet. Maybe she should make a point of looking up her old college chum…
"Whose turn is it for a donut run?" John Olsen's voice rose over the sounds of the busy office.
"Lori's," Fred announced, without hesitation. Lori rather thought it was Fred's, but, as the newest employee, she was disinclined to argue. A few moments later, she was on her way down the elevator.
The donut shop was three blocks away. Lori took the slidewalk, trundling along the side of the street at a steady four miles an hour. She walked in the same direction, thereby reducing her travel time considerably.
Al, the employee behind the counter at Ralph's Donuts, was beginning to recognize her. "Hi, Lori." He looked her over admiringly. Lori ignored his obvious interest. "Your turn again, huh?"
"Actually, it was Fred's," she said, with some acerbity.
"Yeah, I thought you were here this morning. You gotta watch Fred. He did that a lot to the intern last year, too."
"He did, huh?" Lori thought that over while Al put her order together. "Thanks for the tip. I can see Fred and I are going to have an issue or two to work out."
"Good luck," Al said.
The box of donuts under one arm, Lori stepped onto the return slidewalk, her mind busy considering and rejecting ways and means of giving Fred his comeuppance. Now that Al had brought it to her attention, it did seem as if she had gone on an inordinate number of donut runs in the last week. Why that little weasel! He'd been playing her for a fool ever since she'd come to work at the Planet. And no one else had said a word!
Of course, it wasn't likely that people like Clark had noticed, she thought. They had more important things to do than keep track of which junior employee made which donut run, but now that she'd been alerted, she'd keep an eye on Fred and see what other things the lazy little slug was doing to take advantage of her.
Her thoughts were brought to an abrupt halt as a hand reached out of what seemed like nowhere to grab her arm.
Lori jerked away and spun, just as the owner of the hand lunged forward, trying to wrap his arms around her upper torso. There was a second man behind him. Lori knew she wouldn't stand a chance if they both got hold of her.
Playing tag on the LA slidewalks had been a fine art for the kids in her social circle not many years ago, although it was frowned upon seriously by the police, and Lori was sure-footed on the moving surface. As her first assailant grabbed, Lori brought her knee up as hard as she could.
The man dropped with a strangled scream and rolled off the slidewalk. Lori winced involuntarily as his face contacted the rough concrete surface of the stationary sidewalk, but she didn't have time for more. Mugger #2 had dodged his falling companion and was coming at her. Other riders of the slidewalk stared, mesmerized at the drama that was taking place before them, or jumped from the moving strip and fled.
Lori had been taking self-defense classes since January, but a hand-to-hand fight with a beefy assailant in the middle of a slidewalk didn't seem like a very good idea. She turned and jumped for the regular sidewalk. Her pursuer's hand just caught her sleeve, throwing her off-balance. The donut box flew from her hands as she plunged face first toward the concrete.
She broke her fall on her forearms and hands, skinning them badly, but she barely felt it. Fear and pain sent adrenaline slamming through her bloodstream as the mugger leaped from the slidewalk as well, landing next to her. Lori rolled sideways, swept with one foot and took his feet neatly out from under him. He fell backwards onto the moving slidewalk as Lori scrambled to her feet, grabbing for her handbag, and ran.
The adrenaline pumping through her gave her feet wings, and the distance to the Daily Planet seemed to melt into nothing within seconds. She burst through the doors of the Planet and catapulted straight into the arms of Harris, the lobby's security guard. He caught her, staggering slightly. "Ms. Lyons, are you okay?"
She was shaking all over and suddenly became aware that tears were running down her face, but she nodded mutely. Harris held her at arm's length, surveying her. "You're bleeding! What happened?"
Looking down, Lori could see a long, jagged gouge along one arm, and raw, torn flesh along the other. Her hands were scraped and scratched as well; a deep cut on one palm dripped blood freely onto her slacks. She was clutching her handbag and the box of donuts tightly — where had they come from, she wondered irrelevantly. Somehow, in her scramble to escape, she must have picked them up and she didn't even remember doing it.
Harris was frowning at her. "Come on, Ms. Lyons, let's get you up to the first aid station," he said, evidently deciding that she wasn't in any shape to talk. He led her to the elevator. "Third floor," he told it.
When the doors opened on the newsroom, Harris guided her toward the left and the Planet's small first aid office. Lori felt her knees wobbling, and apparently Harris realized it as well, for he immediately led her to a bench that sat against the wall. "Here Ms. Lyons. Sit down."
Lori obeyed, sharply aware of the scene around her but in a detached way, as if she were watching a holovision program.
"Lori?" John Olsen was suddenly seated beside her on the bench. When had he gotten there? She squinted, trying to make his face come more clearly into focus. "What happened?"
He was talking to her, Lori realized, suddenly. She put the box of donuts carefully into his hands. "I saved the donuts," she managed.
Her editor took the box and set it on the bench. "Lori…Fred, go get her a cup of water. Sweetie, take some deep breaths. You're okay, now."
Most of the conversation around her was simply a jumble of words. She was marginally aware of the crowd of her coworkers gathering around her, but their voices were only a gabble of sound in the background. Fred reappeared, and thrust a cup of water into her hands. She gasped as it spilled into her lap, but it snapped her out of her detachment. "Mr. Olsen?"
"Take it easy, Lori. Fred! Go get her some paper towels and another cup of water. Move! Lori, can you tell me what happened?"
Lori found herself stumbling through a semi-coherent explanation of her current appearance. John Olsen listened with a grim look on his features. When she finished, he nodded. "At least you got away. Good work, Lori. I don't suppose there's much good in calling the police now, but — "
"One of them had a tattoo on the back of his hand," Lori said, suddenly. "I saw it. It looked like a coiled snake."
"Okay. Look, I'm going to call them anyway. It can't hurt. Here, take this. Do you think you can hold it without spilling it?" He let her take the cup that Fred had brought, holding on carefully until he was sure she had a grip on it. "Fred, get hold of the nurse at the first aid office. Lori's going to need a little patching up."
When Clark returned to the newsroom about five o'clock, the last thing he expected to see was Lori, her hands and forearms covered in the silvery-pink shade of NuSkin, speaking with a police officer. A closer look, courtesy of his enhanced vision, made him wince.
"Clark." John's voice spoke from behind him. "May I see you in my office, please?"
"Sure." Clark followed his boss into the editor's office and closed the door. "What happened to Lori?"
John gave him a quick, complete summary of the event, leaving Clark appalled. "She showed up here in a state of shock, and I can't blame her," he finished.
"Is she all right?" Clark asked, consciously resisting the urge to tug at his hair. He'd been gone for three hours and Lori had managed to get herself into and out of another dangerous situation. He quelled a sense of deja vu.
"More or less. You saw her arms." John grinned slightly. "I guess I can't argue about her identity anymore, can I?"
Clark gave a short laugh. "I guess not."
"But I need to know. Is there anything she's involved in that could account for this, or is it just random?"
Clark frowned. "I'm not really sure."
"What do you mean, you're not sure?"
"Her flat was broken into last night. Whoever did it literally turned the place upside down, but didn't take anything. I suppose it could be a coincidence, but — "
"You know how I feel about that kind of coincidence."
"About the same as I do. It's possible the two events could be connected to this thing with Gaia's Children that I've been investigating — are you aware that her brother is Commander Bradley Lyons, the Mayflower's captain?"
John looked at him without speaking for a moment. "No, I wasn't. Why didn't you mention it?"
"Lyons asked me not to. I figured I could ask Lori to try to get me an exclusive interview with him just before the ship leaves."
"That's a thought," John said. "All right; forget that for the moment. You think there might be a problem with Gaia? They've never been violent before."
"But there's never been plans for a colony on another earth-like planet outside the Solar System before. Their rhetoric is getting pretty…well, let's say I'm worried. And Lori dug up some under-the-table payments from U&B Technologies to Gaia."
"How did she…no, don't tell me. I don't want to know." John leaned back in his chair. "It does sound as if there's a story there, though. And there may be a tie-in to what happened today. What do you suggest I do? I don't want to lose a promising young reporter on her first investigation." He grinned slightly at Clark's lifted eyebrow. "Well, It sounds to me as if she's at least as involved in this as you are."
Clark snorted. "I guess I should have expected it. I do have an idea, but do me a favor and don't tell her I suggested it, okay?"
"Done. What is it?"
"Assign her as my temporary assistant. That will give me an excuse to keep an eye on her."
John pursed his lips, then nodded. "All right, I will. Just be sure you come back with something to fill up the paper. Twenty million online subscribers are expecting something for their money besides the latest celebrity diet and exercise routine."
"We will," Clark said. "There's something happening here that scares me."
"Well, I expect you to find out what it is. As of this moment, she's your assistant. Get going."
"Gotcha, Boss." Clark grinned at the look his editor gave him and exited the office.
The police officer was just leaving as Clark emerged into the Pit. It was odd, he thought, how the name for the place had remained the same while its appearance had changed so much.
Lori was sitting at her desk, looking both tired and a little upset; Clark couldn't blame her. It had been a traumatic couple of days for her. Had the break-in the night before been because someone was looking for that little package her brother had slipped her? But, who else would know that had been done except Superman?
But if Brad Lyons was trying to protect himself from someone, they might logically reason that he would give his insurance to a relative, in which case Lori's parents and sister could easily be in danger as well. Well, let's see…his youngest daughter, Annie, lived in Burbank. She was a rising vid-star these days. He'd have to ask her to watch out for Robert and Mariann Lyons. And his grandson, Ryan Kent, had made New York his beat. He'd alert him to the possible danger. Ryan would probably enjoy meeting Marcy, Clark thought, not without a certain amount of irony. Pretty girls always caught his eye with no difficulty at all. The two of them would probably hit it off pretty well together.
He went to his phone and left two messages in quick succession. When he looked at Lori again, she was busy at her computer, a look of concentration on her face. As he watched, she gave a little satisfied nod and leaned back in her chair.
Well, time to get the ball rolling. He rose and strode over to her small desk. "Find anything more?"
She looked up at him, then winced and rubbed her shoulder. "Some. Gaia's been making some odd purchases. I don't understand all the abbreviations, though. I downloaded it and e-mailed the list to myself at home so I can study it later."
"Do me a favor and e-mail me a copy, too," Clark said. "You're my new temporary assistant for this assignment, by the way, so consider research into this one of your top priorities."
"Oh?" Lori looked surprised. "But — "
"You made the financial connection between U&B and Gaia," Clark said. "I spent the last three hours hanging around Gaia headquarters earnestly interviewing employees about their views on the upcoming launch. By now, the word has probably percolated around that the Daily Planet is interested in their crusade."
Lori giggled. "I'll bet. I don't know if this is useful, but I found out this morning that the roommate I told you about — the one who tried to convert me to the Gaia cause — is an accountant there. Maybe I should give her a call."
"That's a good idea," Clark said. "See if she'll agree to an interview." He ran a finger gently over the NuSkin. "After that, I think you can knock off for the day. You've had a kind of rough time. I'm going to take you home, we can order out for pizza or something, and then we can plan our strategy for tomorrow, if that's all right with you. If you'd rather rest or something, I'll understand."
"I'm okay," Lori said, a little impatiently. "My arms'll recover. I just skinned them."
"So John told me," Clark said. "Good job, by the way. It sounds as if there's a couple of muggers out there who might be rethinking their choice of careers."
"I hope so," Lori said. "Let me just call Sandra, and we can go."
While Lori was unlocking the door to her little flat, Clark scanned the room beyond with his x-ray vision. It was neat and relatively bare, except for the blanket and pillow that still reposed on the sofa. Apparently, it hadn't been touched since this morning when she had left. He could hear the slight sigh of relief that escaped her lips when she opened the door. The same thoughts that he had been entertaining must have been going through her mind as well.
"Come on in," she said. "Just let me get this stuff off the sofa." She hurried to remove the bedclothing and store it in the closet.
Clark grinned. "Don't mind me," he said. "You should have seen my first apartment. When I saw it, I almost backed out — especially at the price they were asking."
"Yeah." Lori extracted a small laptop computer and closed the closet door. "It's not very big, but I figure when I've been working for awhile I'll be able to afford a better one. Can I get you something to drink?"
Clark noted the stiff way she moved her arms. "No, thanks. I said I was ordering out for pizza, if you don't object. I'd like to look at that list you managed to find and see what Gaia is getting with its money."
"Okay." Lori opened the computer and switched it on. "I'll pull it up for you."
"Any preferences on the pizza?"
"Everything, with extra cheese." She bent over the small device. "Mom keeps telling me I'm going to get fat with all the junk I eat."
Clark glanced at her trim figure. "Well, I don't see any sign of it so far." He went to the vid-phone and punched in the number of his favorite pizza shop.
"Maybe it's my metabolism," Lori said. Clark ordered while she retrieved her mail.
The list was extensive and very detailed, Clark thought, reading it over a short time later. He recognized a few things here and there, but most of it might as well have been Greek. Worse, because he spoke Greek fluently.
"Lots of electronic stuff," he observed, finally. "From several different sources, too. I think we're going to need an expert to tell us what it's for."
"Do you know anyone who can help?" Lori asked.
"Yeah. I have a few contacts at STAR Labs. They can look the list over and give us an opinion. I'd sure like to know why an Earth cult needs all this stuff."
"Me, too," Lori said. "What on Earth is a 'micro-laser frequency scanner'?"
"Your guess is as good as mine," Clark said. "STAR Labs can probably tell us, though. Maybe they'll be able to suggest what it might be used in, too. I'm more interested in that."
"I sure hope so." Lori shifted uncomfortably. "I'll be right back. I think I'll get a couple of aspirin."
He had noticed her moving with care and concluded that her scrapes and bruises still hurt. While she was getting the aspirin, the pizza arrived and he had it set out on the little table by the time she returned, along with two containers of soda.
"That smells delicious," she said as she sank onto the sofa again. "Where did it come from?"
"Petroni's Pizza," he said, handing her a large slice, drippy with cheese. "It's a little place over on the south side."
Lori took a bite. Her eyes widened. "This is fantastic!" she mumbled around the mouthful.
She swallowed a couple of times. "How come you seem to know these great places to eat?" she wanted to know. "I never seem to be able to find anything like them."
"I like to try little out-of-the-way spots," he explained. "I've come across some really great eating places that way. I've found some real duds, too, but fortunately, my stomach can take it."
"Oh." She took another bite and closed her eyes while she chewed. "You're going to spoil me for my own cooking," she said. "I didn't realize there were restaurants that made food like this."
"I guess you eat in fast food chains a lot," Clark hazarded.
"Yeah. At least I did before I was on my own." She grinned. "You can always count on what you're getting at McFeegle's Burger Palace. It may not be great, but you don't end up with food poisoning, either. I may change my mind after this, though. A little food poisoning might not be so bad if I can find places that make food this good."
Clark laughed. "Why don't you just let me give you a list? I'd hate to think I was responsible for making you sick."
Lori laughed, too. "You're on."
They ate in silence for a time. Clark's mind went involuntarily back to something that had been bothering him earlier, and at last, when he saw her smother the third yawn in ten minutes, he broached the subject.
"Lori, I've been thinking."
"I hear that's a dangerous pastime," she said, lightly. "What about?"
"That mugging today is the second thing that's happened to you in two days," he said. "We know that there's a chance that Gaia could be trying to prevent the Mayflower launch, and you are the captain's sister. It's possible there's a connection."
She looked startled. "Do you really think there's any danger?"
"Maybe not." Clark scowled at his soda. "But I'd be happier if you'd make an extra effort to be careful, just until we find out what's really going on."
She was silent for a moment. "Okay," she said finally, rather grudgingly. "It's probably just a coincidence, but if it will make you feel better…"
Clark smiled slightly. "Don't let me force you into anything."
She laughed a little nervously. "I'll be careful; I promise."
"Thanks." He finished his pizza slice. "Look, I know you're tired and sore. I'm going to go, and let you get some rest. I have a few things to finish this evening, anyway. I'll take that list to Dr. Frazier over at STAR Labs, and make a few phone calls. I'll pick you up here tomorrow morning, if that's all right, and we'll head over to Gaia headquarters. Okay?"
"Okay." She started to close the pizza box on the last remaining slices, but he shook his head and got to his feet.
"I'll see myself out. You've been yawning for the last fifteen minutes. Lock the door after I'm gone, and if anything scares you, call me. I can have help here in a few minutes."
She nodded, smothering another yawn. "That's what Superman said last night."
"Well, listen to him. There's probably nothing to be worried about, but I'd rather be overcautious than not cautious enough." He smiled at her. "Good night."
Clark arrived at Lori's apartment just before seven the next morning. A flash of red and blue in the sky above him caught his eye, and he glanced up to see Superwoman, his daughter Lara, hovering there for an instant before she waved breezily and disappeared into the glare of the morning sun.
He shook his head, grinning slightly.
He had intended, after leaving Lori's flat the night before, to camp out on the roof of her apartment house, but at one a.m. Aaron had arrived unexpectedly and told him, in a tone that brooked no nonsense, to go home; he was taking over. Evidently, Lara had relieved him some time after that.
It continued to amaze him how his entire family appeared to have pitched in to help him this time. If he had ever had any doubts about how much they cared for his happiness, this would have ended them.
They had all been worried about him when he had lost Lois; he knew the whole family had half-expected to lose him as well — he hadn't expected to be able to survive without her. The only thing that had made the difference had been that indefinable sense that she was still there, somewhere, waiting for him. His discovery of Lori had been hailed by his descendents with joy. All of them were aware of the pitfalls that lay ahead of him, the difference in his age and hers being a big one, but if anything they could do could make it easier, he knew they would do it.
His four children fully understood his situation, perhaps more closely than they would like, he knew, because they would be facing it themselves in the not-too-distant future. Some members of the succeeding generations also would; those who had inherited the Kryptonian power to communicate telepathically with other Kryptonians appeared to have inherited the necessity to bond as well. Not all of them had the ability, just as not all had inherited his super powers. John and Aaron were two perfect examples. John had no super powers at all, but he could speak telepathically to his other telepathic Kryptonian relatives if he chose, although he rarely did so, and had bonded with his wife, Marilyn, the day he met her. His brother, Aaron, had inherited the full range of his great grandfather's super powers, but was telepathically null. Their sister, Carrie, however, had both sets of abilities. Their family physician, Rhonda Klein — Ultra-Woman, who patrolled the Houston area — had explained one time that the super powers were caused by Earth's yellow sun; the telepathic and emotional bond was something else entirely, and had no connection to the super powers. Clark had long since given up on the genetic complexities. He merely knew that they were still learning things about his Kryptonian heritage, and probably would be for a long time to come.
He trotted up the steps in front of Lori's shabby little apartment house. He could hear her heartbeat, and the sounds of her moving around in her flat as he zipped up the inner stairwell with more than human speed, and was almost instantly knocking at her door.
She opened it a few seconds later, looking surprised. "That was fast! I saw you coming up the walk a few minutes ago."
Clark shrugged. "I ran up the steps…part of my physical fitness program."
"Oh. Well, come in. I'm just finishing my makeup." She opened the door wider. "I'll be done in a minute."
"I thought we could catch breakfast at Kerry's, then go over to Gaia headquarters," Clark explained. "You did say the interview is at eight-thirty, didn't you?"
"Yeah," Lori said. "Do you have some kind of plan, or is it really just going to be an interview?"
Clark raised an eyebrow at her. "A long time ago, the best reporter I ever knew taught me to always have a plan." He reached into his pocket. "Courtesy of Dr. Frazier at STAR Labs."
Lori looked curiously at the three straight pins in the palm of his hand. "What are those?"
"Pinhead mikes," Clark said. "They'll pick up even the faintest sounds within a radius of thirty feet and transmit to a special receiver outside the building. All I need is an excuse to get inside, and a few unsupervised minutes, and we're set."
"Wow," Lori said. "So the interview is just so we can plant these?"
"Yes and no. I'm going to print the interview, too. We owe it to our readers to give both sides of the debate, you know. Anything else we might find is up to us."
"Okay. Just give me a few minutes, and we can go."
"Take your time." Clark said.
She disappeared into her tiny bathroom, and Clark glanced around. A quick peek with his x-ray vision confirmed his suspicion that Lori hadn't been grocery shopping since the night of the break-in. Even the shredded wheat and dill pickles were gone. The first few weeks of getting started must be pretty difficult for her, he surmised, and he had a strong suspicion she didn't want to ask her parents for help. No wonder the poor kid was starving. Well, the last thing he wanted to do was to hurt her pride, so he would have to think of something he could do without letting her know he'd figured out the problem.
An hour later, they were knocking on the door of Sandra Callahan's office in the three-story building that housed the headquarters of the Gaia's Children movement.
Lori had somehow envisioned something somewhat different than the modern building they had entered. A cult which focused on the Earth, in her mind at least, wasn't associated with a structure of steel and concrete, with efficient secretaries and men and women in business suits, but that was the reality. A tall thin young man, with a disapproving expression, escorted them into her office.
Sandra, Lori recalled, had always been mature for her age, and always made Lori feel much younger than she actually was. Her former roommate would be about twenty-three, right now, and a very self-possessed twenty-three at that. She didn't seem to Lori to be the sort to be sucked in by an ideology of this sort, but Lori had learned some time ago that you couldn't judge a book by its cover, as her father had always said.
She plastered a smile on her face.
"Sandra, it's so good to see you again."
"Lori." Sandra acknowledged her greeting with a reserved smile. "Your call yesterday was certainly a surprise. I thought you made it clear last time we spoke that your interest in our movement was nonexistent."
Lori shrugged. "It is," she admitted. "But the Daily Planet is doing an in-depth article on the colony ship, and our editor didn't think it would be fair not to give the opponents their say. This is Mr. Kent, who's writing the article. Clark, this is Sandra Callahan."
Clark turned his beautiful smile on Sandra, and Lori watched her stiff manner relax somewhat. His dark good looks, and that smile were virtually guaranteed to melt the heart of the most hostile female that could be imagined, she thought with amusement. Of course, the fact that Clark resembled Superman somewhat probably didn't hurt. Both were outstandingly (and most unfairly) attractive men.
Sandra indicated that her visitors should sit, and asked, "What did you want to know about Gaia's Children, Mr. Kent?"
"Well," Clark began, "first could you describe your reasons for joining the Gaia movement?" He fixed his eyes on her with such an expression of interest on his face that Lori had to turn an involuntary laugh into a cough. After a few minutes, however, her amusement disappeared to be replaced by respect. Listening to Clark conduct an interview was like watching an artist at work; Lori thought she had never heard someone draw out his subject with such skill, getting her to open up and answer more of his real questions than she perhaps intended. When he concluded the interview as gracefully as he had begun it, Sandra's initial suspicion had vanished, and she was smiling at him in a friendly way.
"Thank you for taking the time for us this morning, Ms. Callahan," he was saying, as they rose to depart. "Do you have any more literature that I can have — "
"Oh, yes!" Sandra turned toward the door. "Wait here a minute. I'll be right back." She hurried from the office and Lori could hear the click of her sandals as she hurried down the hallway outside.
"Wow," Lori said, softly. "I thought I knew something about conducting an interview! I think I learned more watching that than I did in four years of college."
"Thanks," Clark said. "You remember the next step, don't you?"
"Good." He turned his head. "Here she comes."
Sandra entered the room a few seconds later, several pamphlets in her hand. "Here you are, Mr. Kent."
"Thank you." Clark accepted them with a smile. "I appreciate all the trouble you've gone to this morning. You've been a great help."
"It was my pleasure," Sandra said. "If you need any more information, please be sure to call me."
"I will," Clark said. He opened the door for Lori, who preceded him from the office.
As the door started to close, she caught it and turned to her former roommate. "Sandra, is there a restroom around here?"
"Sure. Down the hall toward the elevators, third door to your left."
When Lori rejoined Clark ten minutes later, he was standing in the hallway, apparently waiting patiently for her. She glanced questioningly at him, but he simply smiled.
"Ready?" he asked.
They exchanged only a few words on their way down the elevator. It wasn't until they were out on the street that Lori asked, "How did it go?"
"They're planted," Clark said, quietly. "Now all we have to do is wait. Thanks for giving me the excuse to hang around in the hall for a few minutes."
Lori couldn't help wondering how he'd managed to plant three bugs in three offices in the space of ten minutes, but if anyone could do it, Clark could. "No sweat," she said. "Where to, now?"
"Well," he said, "I guess we could drop by the office. I need to write up my notes, and I'd like you to do a deeper background on U&B Technologies for me — say, the last ten years. I'd like to see if any kind of pattern surfaces. STAR Labs is supposed to be calling me sometime today with an opinion on that list. Dr. Frazier promised he'd get to it as soon as he could today." He grinned at her. "Of course, with Dr. Frazier, you never know."
"Oh?" Lori said.
Clark nodded. "You have to know Arnie," he said. "Brilliant man, and a really nice guy, but…" He shrugged. "Like I said, you have to know him."
"I'll take your word for it," Lori said. "What if your bugs don't come up with anything?"
"Then we'll have to think of a way to get back in and move them. I tried to pick the offices of the most senior officials that I could. I figure the Mayflower is the highest priority they're likely to have right now, but, of course, time will tell."
"Probably," Lori said. "What if they find the bugs?"
"We'll deal with that if it happens. Dr. Frazier did his best to keep the possibility to a minimum. They're not metal; they're some kind of ceramic material, so they'll be harder to locate, and the signal is designed to sound like background noise unless you're listening with a special detector. Unless they're specifically looking for them, and know exactly what to look for, it isn't likely they'll spot them."
Lori sat back in her chair and stretched.
The past four hours had been busy ones for her, digging as thoroughly as she could into the known history of U&B Technologies.
She had hunted up records of contracts and deals, and the jobs in which they had been involved for the past ten years, beginning with their first major contract. Legal entanglements, of course, dotted their record — no good-sized company on the face of the Earth was without those, but she had begun to notice a trend as her research into their record neared the present date.
Clark dropped a hand on her shoulder. "How's it going?" he inquired.
She looked up at him with a smile. "All right. I haven't been able to crack into their system; I guess I'm not good enough for that yet, but I've found a lot in the public records. Some of it's — well, pretty interesting."
"Good," he said. "Are you ready for some lunch? It's past noon."
Lori's stomach grumbled a little at the suggestion, and he laughed.
"I'd say you are. Come on. As long as you're working for me, I'm buying."
Her slight hesitation vanished. "Okay."
"Good. Let's go. You can tell me about what you've found while we eat."
"Whose turn for donuts?" John Olsen's voice said.
Fred turned his head. "It's Lori's turn. I got the last ones."
"Sorry, Fred," Clark said, easily. "Lori's assisting me right now. Come on, Lori." He gestured her up the ramp ahead of him, leaving Fred to look resentfully after them and mutter under his breath.
"Is there a problem with Fred?" Clark asked quietly, as they boarded the elevator.
"Not really." Lori said, unwilling to tattle on her coworker, in spite of his irritating ways. "Nothing I can't handle, anyway."
"Oh," Clark said. "Okay, if you say so. Where would you like to eat?"
"I don't know." Lori thought unenthusiastically of the Planet's lunch facilities. "I guess the lunchroom is okay."
Clark made a face. "Do you like Mexican food?"
"Great. Mamacita's is just three blocks away. I can recommend it."
"Is that another one of your little out-of-the-way places?" she asked.
"Well, it's not out of the way, but the food is good," Clark said.
"All right," Lori said, as the door slid open, to release them into the lobby. "I just feel bad that you always seem to be buying me food."
"Hey, the company is worth it," Clark said, cheerfully. "It's no fun eating alone."
"Well…if you put it like that, I guess it's all right," she said.
"Good. Let's go."
It was a bright, sunny afternoon, Lori saw as they exited onto the street. There was a slight wind blowing, and fleecy, white clouds dotted the sky. High up, a human figure in red and blue crossed her line of vision — one of the superheroes going about his or her business, she guessed. The only two who wore the red and blue combination to her knowledge were Superman and Superwoman.
Clark glanced up, following her gaze, then steered her to the northbound slidewalk.
"So," he said, apparently out of nowhere, "I've been meaning to ask you. What's your opinion of Superman?"
"Huh?" Lori found herself at a loss. "What do you mean?"
"Do you like him?"
"Well, sure. He saved my life," she said, throwing him a curious glance. "Why?"
"I just wondered," Clark said, looking extraordinarily innocent. "He likes you a lot, you know."
"Does he?" Lori asked. "I didn't know. Did he say so?"
"More or less."
"That's nice to know," Lori said. "I'll never forget how he saved me that night I was mugged on campus. He flew with me a little way, you know. It was a wonderful experience."
"I guess flying doesn't scare you," Clark said.
"No. It was really fantastic," she admitted. "Have you ever flown with him?"
"Not exactly," Clark said. "I've flown with Superwoman, though. I agree; flying's a great experience."
"I guess you must know Superman's family," Lori said.
"Yeah, I do."
"I've wondered what they were like," she said. "I mean, they're all the original Superman's descendents, aren't they?"
"Yes," Clark said.
"I think we're lucky to have them here," Lori said. "I never thought much about them when I lived at home in LA. I saw Shooting Star once from a distance — she lives in LA, somewhere, I guess. Then, I came to Metropolis, and there were four of them at first, and a couple of years later Superman appeared. I guess Metropolis needs five since it's so big."
"I suppose," Clark said.
"Anyway, I like Superman, if he wants to know. He's very nice, and…well, I know a guy doesn't think about it much, but he's very good looking." She glanced at him, and said bravely, "You sort of look like him, you know."
"You think so?" Clark said.
"Yeah. I think your hair is a little longer, and he might be a little taller, but you look a lot alike."
"Does that mean you think I'm good looking, too?" he asked, teasingly.
Lori felt her cheeks turning pink, but she replied determinedly, "Yes, I do."
He chuckled. "Thanks. I think you're pretty nice looking, yourself. Here we are."
They stepped from the slidewalk. Lori saw the restaurant in question across the street.
As they stepped to the curb, a battered ground car pulled up beside them and the rear door opened. Lori found herself staring, stunned, into the muzzle of a weapon. A deep, male voice said, "Get in."
The ancient ground car, it's windows darkened to the fullest, moved sedately through downtown Metropolis. The two men in the front seat were silent. One sat sideways, keeping what appeared to be a commercial stunner centered directly on Lori.
Clark sat still, careful not to make any kind of move that could possibly be interpreted as threatening. Lori was huddled against him in the seat, and he gently put an arm around her shoulders in a comforting gesture.
"Aw, ain't that sweet." The individual holding the stunner grinned unpleasantly at him. "Big he-man gonna protect his little girlfriend." He moved the muzzle a little closer to Lori. "Not so tough now, are you, sweetheart?"
"I suppose it takes a gun to make a guy like you feel like a real man," Lori said, with a flash of spirit. "You couldn't even handle one unarmed woman on a slidewalk."
The grin vanished, to be replaced by a scowl. "Listen, you little — "
"Shut up, Frank." The driver spoke tersely.
"But — "
"I said shut up."
Frank fell silent, still scowling.
Lori glanced up at Clark. "Sorry," she said.
He answered her with a slight tightening of his arm. There was something about the stunner that Frank was aiming at Lori that didn't look quite right. He brought his x-ray vision to bear on it, and silently caught his breath at what it revealed.
The thing Frank was holding had once been a stunner, all right, but it wasn't anymore. Someone had removed the power limiting chip, and that had to have been the work of a real expert, he knew. Normally, the removal or destruction of a stunner's limitator would render the weapon permanently inoperative by frying the internal circuitry with the energy of the power core, which destroyed itself in the process. Somehow, that hadn't happened here. The thing now pointing at Lori was in effect a very crude sonic disrupter, without any of the lower power settings present on police or military weapons. But crude or not, it could do the job for which it was intended. It had been altered for one purpose and one purpose only: to kill. These people were playing for keeps.
He doubted the weapon could affect him seriously, but Lori was another matter entirely. He wouldn't risk her life for any reason; that went without saying, but now was a possible chance for them to discover what was behind yesterday's attack on her and the break-in at her apartment. If there appeared to be any immediate threat to her, he would get her out of here at once, secret identity notwithstanding. In the meantime, he would remain silent; it was an opportunity too good to miss.
The ground car turned down an alley and came to a stop behind a larger, more modern vehicle, sleek and elegant, gleaming black and silver in the afternoon sun. The driver killed the engine.
"Get out," Frank directed his two captives. "And don't either of you try anything or the pretty boy fries. This thing may look like a stunner, but take it from me, it ain't."
They obeyed silently. Clark kept his body partially between Lori and the weapon, which didn't seem to worry Frank. He waved the disrupter. "Get in the other car."
Slowly, they climbed into the back and the door was slammed behind them. Clark glanced at the plastic privacy screen between the front and rear seats, but said nothing. The windows of this vehicle were darkened as well, affording those outside no glimpse of what might be occurring within.
"Clark, what's going to happen to us?" Lori's whisper was soft and very frightened, although she had shown little fear in the presence of their captors. "Why are they doing this?"
"I think we're going to find out," he replied, as softly. "Don't do anything to upset that idiot with the gun. I don't think he's bright enough to control his temper very well." Again, he slipped an arm around her. "Trust me. I won't let them hurt you."
She swallowed. "I'm scared."
"I know," he replied. "Just hang in there, okay?"
The car's engine started suddenly and the big vehicle eased forward with a smooth and ponderous, grace. Suddenly, Clark's nostrils caught a scent, and it took only a couple of seconds for him to identify it. Gas.
Lori gasped and clutched at her throat, before slumping limply against him, and Clark let himself slip sideways in the seat. Well, he thought, at least she wouldn't be frightened, while he did whatever he had to do in the immediate future.
The trip went on for another thirty minutes. Clark kept his eyelids open a crack to keep an eye on things, and kept his ears tuned to Lori's heartbeat and breathing. They were slow, but steady. The two men in the front seat conversed in monosyllables; not much to learn there, but he continued to listen, anyway.
They were out in the suburbs, now. Clark remained still as the vehicle stopped before a gated community. The iron gates opened, and they moved through.
At last, the car pulled into a garage, the engine died, and the garage door closed behind them. An overhead light came on, and the rear doors of the car opened. Clark felt Lori hauled out over him, then a pair of muscular hands caught him by the shoulders and dragged him from the car.
"Damn, but this guy's heavy!" Frank's voice grunted. "Why not just kill him here? I don't want to haul him up those steps."
"Shut up, Frank." It seemed to be the driver's favorite phrase. "No killing anybody here."
"But, Ray — "
"No buts. You heard the orders."
After that, Clark made himself as limp and heavy as he reasonably could. If he was lucky, maybe Frank would throw out his back or something. The knowledge that he was one of the two men who had tried to mug Lori on the slidewalk put him beyond pardon, as far as Clark was concerned. He wouldn't do anything active to hurt the man, no matter what he had done, but what Frank did to himself during the commission of a crime was another matter entirely.
He was dragged unceremoniously up a short flight of wooden steps, through a door and into a kitchen. From the kitchen, they traversed the hall beyond, and from there another and longer flight of stairs to the second floor, with Frank cursing steadily all the way. None of it was new or even imaginative. Clark concentrated on being as unhelpful as possible.
Eventually, Frank dragged him onto the rug of the upper hallway and dropped his shoulders to the floor with a solid thud and a final swear word, then attempted to relieve his feelings by delivering a sharp kick to Clark's ribs. He spent the next several seconds clutching his bruised foot and swearing more colorfully than ever.
"What the devil's holding you up?" The driver emerged from an open door at the end of the hall. "Get him in here and stop fooling around! We haven't got all day!"
"I said move it!"
When Frank dropped him to the rug inside the room, Clark lay still until the door closed behind him, then rose swiftly to his feet and hurried to Lori where she had been dumped rather unceremoniously on the room's single bed. Gently, he picked her up and arranged her more comfortably, all the while tuning his hearing to the voices of the two men elsewhere in the house. After a minute, the kitchen door to the garage slammed, and a few moments later he heard the engine of the big car come to life.
The heartbeat of one man remained below, however. He went to the window, to see the big, black car vanishing up the street.
Slowly, he turned and took in his surroundings.
The bedroom was small and feminine. The thick, plush rug was pink in color, and the walls were painted to match. White, frilly curtains framed the window, and a delicate, carved dresser stood against one wall. A ridiculously pink, lace-covered dressing table and mirror sat next to the window, with a padded stool in front of it. The room obviously belonged to a woman, Clark thought. He decided he would pass no judgment on the unknown female's taste in decor.
Somewhere below him he heard the soft beeping as the remaining man punched a number into the vid phone. Clark trained his x-ray vision on the floor, trying to see.
Too late. The phone was beeping softly as it waited for an answer.
And, at last…
"Yes? I trust you have news for me?"
The screen had not lit up; the recipient must have his screen block on, Clark surmised, but his voice was distinctive. It was sharp, heavy with authority and carried a strong, nasal twang.
"We got the girl, sir." It was Ray speaking. "We had to pick up that guy, Kent, that she's been going all over with, too, though."
"You idiots! You realize now that you'll have to dispose of two bodies instead of one? That was extremely untidy!"
"Yes, sir, but he was going with her everywhere, and every time we got near her place last night there was some super hero or other just hanging around."
"Did any of them see you?"
"No, sir, but we had to grab her when we had the chance, sir. Our contact warned us they were…" There was a brief pause. "Well, anyway, we have them. They're sleeping off the gas upstairs, sir. When they wake up — "
"Before that, your associate will search that apartment of hers thoroughly! The previous attempt was hurried and incomplete. If the item fails to surface, you will wring the location from the girl by any means necessary. Is that clear?"
"Don't be too worried about leaving her in the same condition in which you found her. When you're done, dispose of both of them at a distance from the house. The Hobs River or the bay would be appropriate."
"That package must be found! Lyons is getting too close, and if we have to move before the package is in our hands, it will result in grave consequences for all of us. Am I being clear?"
"Call me again when you have some results!"
"Yes, sir." There was a soft "ping" as the connection was broken.
Well, Clark thought, that was interesting. It sounded as if that package of Lori's was a hotter potato than either of them had suspected.
However, it looked as if he had reached the limit of what he could learn here. Frank and Ray obviously didn't know the identity of the man giving them orders, or he wouldn't have tried to hide his face from them, but Clark was certain of one thing. If and when he encountered the mysterious Mr. X again, he would recognize his voice. In any case, it looked as if the time had come to make their escape. This shouldn't be too difficult.
Lori moaned and began to gag.
Quickly, he hurried to her. She was moving restlessly about, and her face had acquired a pale, greenish hue. Clark glanced around the small, bedroom and discovered a pink satin-covered wastebasket beside the dainty, ruffled dressing table. Quickly, he appropriated it and moved back to Lori's side.
"Clark?" Lori hadn't opened her eyes, and the word was barely more than a whisper.
"I'm right here, Lori."
"I feel sick. I'm going to — "
Quickly, he turned her to the side and held the basket for her while she lost the little that remained in her stomach from breakfast. When the dry heaves finally stopped, she lay back, her eyes still closed.
"I'm right here. Just lie still. You'll feel better in a little while." He set the trash basket down far enough away that the smell wouldn't upset her stomach further. Her complexion worried him; it was so pale that every freckle stood out against the white background in sharp contrast.
"Where are we?"
"Locked in a bedroom, in a house."
Her hand fumbled for his, and he slipped his big one around it. "We're going to get out of here. Don't worry."
"Don't go away."
"I'm not leaving." Swiftly, he revised his plan. 'Lara,' he called out mentally. 'I need help!'
Instantly, his oldest daughter's voice was answering him. 'Where are you, Dad?'
With a few, quick sentences, he explained his predicament, and Lara responded, 'I'll be there in a minute.'
Almost instantly, a sonic boom rattled the windows, and a moment later the bedroom door opened. The diminutive form of Superwoman stood there, brilliant in her red and blue uniform, holding a crestfallen Ray by the back of his collar.
"Are you and Ms. Lyons all right, Clark?" she inquired.
"I think so." He glanced down at Lori, noting that her eyes were open and she was looking at Lara, but her face was still greenish-white.
A quick burst of super speed, and Ray was face down on the floor, tied hand and foot with strips of torn towel. Superwoman strode to Lori and smiled gently. "Lie still, Ms. Lyons. You'll feel better shortly. The other of your two kidnappers is on his way to break into your apartment. I'm going to be there, waiting for him when he gets your door open. I'll notify the police on my way past. I'm sure they'll want that telephone number this gentleman used to call his employer. You wait here with Ms. Lyons, Clark."
"I will. Thank you, Superwoman."
"My pleasure." With that, the small, businesslike woman was gone in a gust of air. Ray, face down on the rug, closed his eyes and groaned dismally.
"As far as we can determine, the house belongs to a family that's on vacation," Lieutenant Chow said. "We'll check them out more thoroughly, of course, but right now the only connection seems to be that this pair of rocket scientists brought you here."
"I heard Ray tell Frank that they had orders not to kill anyone here," Clark said. "There must be some reason for that."
"We're not dropping it." Chow regarded Clark in a friendlier manner than she did most reporters. "And we're tracing the phone call. It's a Houston number; I can tell you that from the prefix. Do you have any idea who in Houston might be after your scalp?"
Clark shook his head. "I'm afraid not." He turned his head as the paramedic entered the room. "How's Ms. Lyons?"
The woman smiled. "Still a little queasy, but feeling much better, Mr. Kent. I can't convince her to let us take her to the hospital to be checked over, though."
Clark laughed, softly. That sounded familiar. "Can we hitch a ride back to the city with you, Lieutenant?" he asked.
Chow smiled a trifle grimly. "Sure. Ms. Lyons can ride in the front seat, next to the window. That should help. I don't usually allow civilians to ride in front, but for the sake of my upholstery, I'll make an exception." She glanced sideways at Clark. "What I'd like to know is why you're in as good shape as you are."
Clark shrugged. "Just lucky, I guess." He glanced at his jacket. "My suit may never be the same, though."
Chow snorted. Clark rose to his feet. "Excuse me, Lieutenant. I want to see how she is."
Lori's complexion had improved considerably, Clark saw, when he entered the small bedroom. She turned her head when he came through the door and smiled.
"Hi." She started to push herself up and he hurried to help her.
"You look like you feel better," he said.
"I do. Sorry to be such a baby."
"You weren't," Clark said, a little surprised. "I thought you showed a lot of courage."
"Maybe, but my stomach didn't," Lori said. "You weren't sick at all."
Clark hesitated. "I'm not usually sensitive to that sort of thing," he explained. "Take it from me, it wasn't anything you could help. I just didn't react to the gas like you did."
"I guess. I'm glad Superwoman showed up when she did, though."
"So am I," Clark said.
"She's just as impressive as Superman," Lori said. "It's funny, she's littler than I am."
"I guess the old saying about good things coming in small packages is truer than people realize," Clark said. "I agree; she's a terrific lady. She got Frank when he broke into your apartment, too. Lieutenant Chow got the call a little while ago. It looks like I'm going to have to replace your door lock again, though."
Dismayed, Clark saw tears beginning to well up in her eyes. "Hey, don't cry." He pulled the handkerchief from his breast pocket and put it in her hands. "It's okay. I don't mind fixing your lock, really."
She wiped her eyes, sniffed determinedly, and made a visible effort to regain her composure. "I'm not crying. I never cry."
"'Course not." Clark smiled at her. "You've just had a really bad day."
She sniffed again, and gave a shaky laugh. "Has anyone ever told you you're really good at understatements?"
"A few people."
"Well, they were right. But the morning started out okay."
"Yeah, it did." He brushed her cheek with a forefinger. "Do you feel up to riding in a car yet? Lieutenant Chow is going to give us a lift back to town."
"I think so."
"Good. I'll give you a hand down the stairs. If you need to sit down, just say so."
"Clark, I'm not made of china, you know…"
The ride to town was accomplished without any serious incident, particularly to Lieutenant Chow's upholstery. Upon their arrival at the police station, Clark called the Planet to report to his editor what had delayed them. As he was hanging up, Chow appeared with two small items in her hand.
"We found these in the car. Can you identify them?"
"Those are our wrist-talkers," Lori said. "They took them when they kidnapped us."
Clark shut off the vid phone. "Thanks, Lieutenant."
"We've got statements for you both to sign," she told them, "and a lineup. We might as well get it over with, now."
They returned to Lori's apartment an hour later, with a short detour by a hardware store, where Clark was allowed to purchase a second lock for Lori's door with the understanding that he would let her reimburse him, come payday.
While Clark busied himself with the replacement of her lock for the second time in three days, Lori sat on the floor beside him, watching while he worked, a frown on her face.
Finally Clark asked, "How are you feeling, now?"
"Okay," she said. "I'm just trying to figure out why this is happening, that's all. Those guys didn't pick us out to kidnap for no reason."
"No," Clark said. "I overheard the one guy — Ray — talking on the phone, though. He thought I was still asleep."
"What did he say?"
"They're after a package that your brother gave you."
Lori drew in her breath sharply. "*That's* what this is all about?"
"Evidently." He put down the screwdriver. "There, all done. I got the toughest lock I could find, this time."
"Maybe it'll do better at keeping people out," Lori said, absently. "I hope so, anyway. What else did he say?"
Clark got to his feet and reached down to give her a hand up. "Tell you what," he said. "We still haven't had anything to eat, and it's past five. Let's go over to my place. I'll cook dinner, we can talk about it and maybe figure out a few things about what's going on and what we can do about it." He smiled at her hesitation. "No funny stuff. I promise."
Lori blushed to the hairline. "I didn't mean…I mean, I know you wouldn't…I mean…"
He broke out laughing. "It's okay; I know you didn't. Really, though, do you have any objections? I'm a pretty good cook, honestly."
She nodded. "Okay. It's just that I've caused so much trouble for you already, and — "
"Hey." Clark put a finger across her lips. "I'll let you know if I think you've caused me too much trouble. As far as I can see, you haven't done anything. If anyone's caused me trouble, it's old Frank and Ray, don't you think?"
"Well…I guess when you put it that way — "
"All right, then." Clark handed her the new keys. "Here you are. Why don't you lock up here and we'll go."
One of the other tenants of Lori's apartment house was waiting for the elevator when they arrived at the end of the hall. Clark eyed the young man thoughtfully. He was tall, skinny, his long hair was definitely in desperate need of shampoo, and the aroma that wafted toward them indicated also a distinct lack of acquaintance with soap, water, or deodorant. He eyed Lori appreciatively up and down and whistled clearly through the gap provided by two missing front teeth. Lori moved a few inches closer to Clark.
The elevator arrived, and Greasy Hair entered the elevator. He glanced over Lori once more. "Come on, Babe," he said, invitingly. "I don't bite." He grinned. "Much."
Clark took her arm. "We'll walk, thanks." He opened the door to the stairs.
Lori exhaled softly.
"Nice neighbor," Clark commented as he gestured her in ahead of him.
"No kidding," Lori said. "And he's one of the better ones. At least he doesn't play bongo drums all night."
"The guys next door are an aspiring Period band."
"Let me guess. The early 1960s."
"The Beatnik era," Lori said. "You got it. They play for that club over on 26th, 'The Espresso Pit'. Usually they practice until about three a.m., but last night they weren't here, for once. They woke me up at five this morning when they came staggering in. They must have had an all night gig."
"I see," Clark said. "I don't blame you for having all those locks on your door, even if it hadn't been for Frank and Ray."
Lori laughed sourly. "Let's say it's an interesting neighborhood."
"Sounds like it, all right."
"The price was right," Lori said. "I may take a second job, though, so I can afford to move."
"I don't blame you," Clark said. "There must be a better place somewhere in Metropolis that isn't too expensive."
"If you find out about one, let me know," Lori said.
"I'll do that," Clark said.
The remainder of the conversation was somewhat limited as they descended the three stories to the ground floor. They emerged into the small entrance hall at last, and Clark pushed open the peeling door to the street.
The sun was sinking toward the west, already partially obscured by the tall buildings of the city, and the streetlights were beginning to glimmer. Clark directed Lori to the southbound slidewalk, and they joined the crowds of evening riders on the moving walk. Lori stuck close to Clark, her eyes roving over the people who milled around them, feeling unaccountably exposed.
"This is kind of creepy," she confessed to Clark. "Even if those guys are still in jail, we don't know who else might be out here, following us."
"I think they're probably still locked up," Clark said. "Kidnapping and possession of an illegally altered weapon are pretty serious offenses."
Lori shrugged uncomfortably. "I hope you're right. So," she said, deliberately turning her mind to the earlier events of the day, "what else happened while I was still knocked out? I guess you woke up a while before I did."
"Basically, just the phone call," Clark said. "Ray called a Houston number…" Quickly, he gave her a summary of what he had heard, not trying to soften the impact of Mr. X's orders. Lori remained silent.
"So, they were going to kill us both after they got the package," she said, when he finished.
"It sounded like it," he said.
"Brad wouldn't have given it to me if he'd thought it would put me in danger," she said.
"I'm sure he wouldn't have," Clark said. "Somehow, they figured out that you probably have it, though."
"Yeah." Lori's eyes widened as she thought of the other possibility. "Unless they're just going after my whole family! Clark…!"
"It's all right," he said. "I already thought of it. Superman has some of his family watching Marcy and your parents, just in case."
"When did you have time to do that?" she asked, a little surprised.
"I made a phone call while you were giving your statement to the police officer," Clark said.
"You did? Superman has a phone?"
"Sure," Clark said.
"Oh." Lori couldn't quite envision a super hero wearing a wrist talker, but there were probably a lot of things about them that she didn't know. "Thanks."
"Brad gave me the package, and told me to give it to you if something happened to him," she said.
"He said he trusted your reputation."
"Well," Clark said, "from what I overheard, my bet is they're not stopping whatever they're up to because of this package. They may be delaying while they try to get their hands on it, but from what the guy said, they might 'move' without it if they have to, and take the consequences."
"What do you think I should do?" Lori asked.
"Lori, Brad is your brother. It's your decision." He pointed. "There's my apartment house."
They stepped from the slidewalk and crossed the street. Clark slid his electronic key into a slot on the front door and the heavy panels opened inward.
"Wow,' Lori said. "I didn't know you lived in a security apartment. Which floor are you on?"
"Top," Clark said. "I'm on the twentieth, right under the roof. I like it there; I can see out but no one can see in, and I have a spectacular view of the whole city from my balcony. There's also a skylight, which is really nice on sunny days." He gestured her ahead of him. "'Won't you come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly'…"
Lori giggled. "Somehow, I have a lot of trouble seeing you as a spider. You're not the type."
He smiled. "Okay, I can live with that. The elevator is this way." When Clark opened the door to his apartment, Lori wasn't sure what to expect, but it turned out not to be anything like she imagined.
It was, of course, considerably larger than her own tiny flat, but it was no luxury apartment, either. The living room was about twice the size of her entire place; a kitchen opened off on one side, and there was a door that must be to the bedroom on the adjoining wall. On the outer wall, she could see a balcony beyond the French windows, and glancing up, she saw a large skylight which let in diffused pinkish sunlight from the nearly setting sun.
Clark's furniture was somehow what she would have expected, however. A big, comfortable couch sat in the middle of the floor, before a vid screen, with a reclining chair at right angles to it. A couple of end tables held shaded lamps, and a big coffee table, with one, minor ring in the varnish, was positioned in front of the couch. A desk in one corner held a very modern computer, at sharp variance with its surroundings in its smart newness.
"Make yourself at home," Clark told her. "Would you like something to drink while I put something together for us? There's soda in the fridge, or I could make some tea."
"Soda's fine," Lori said.
"Help yourself," Clark said. "I'll be right back." He vanished into the bedroom.
Lori went into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and removed a soda. She slowly wandered back into the living area, the container in her hand, looking about with interest.
A wine rack against the wall adjoining the kitchen was half full, and some of the names made her open her eyes a little. Next to the bedroom door, shelves lined the wall adorned with books in several languages — old books, she thought, looking at the covers — and small, and not-so-small knick-knacks of all kinds. One item, an oddly carved statue, drew her attention; there was something vaguely familiar about it, but she couldn't put her finger on what it was.
Clark emerged from his bedroom, wearing a black T-shirt, slightly worn jeans and a pair of tennis shoes. Lori mastered the impulse to stare. Her highly professional co-worker had completely transformed into a younger, more casual man in the space of a few minutes. Wow! She had to swallow a couple of times before she found her voice.
"You look…different," she said.
"Well, I don't always wear a business suit, you know. I see you found my fertility statue," he added, nodding at the object she had been examining.
"Is that what it is?" she asked, looking back at it long enough to catch her breath.
"Yes. I got it from a medicine man in Borneo. It's supposed to ensure that a marriage is happy and — " he grinned slightly, "fruitful."
"Oh." For some reason, Lori felt herself blushing.
Clark didn't appear to notice. "So, what would you like for dinner tonight? How about a nice steak with mushrooms, baked potato and salad? Does that sound okay?"
"It sounds wonderful."
"Okay. Is red wine all right, or would you prefer milk or something? I have both."
"Well…I guess the wine would be okay."
"Ever tried it before?"
Lori hesitated, not wishing to sound unsophisticated, but she had the feeling Clark would know. "No, not really. I've had wine coolers, but I don't think they're the same."
"Well, why don't you try a sip, and if you don't like it there's the milk. I warn you, it's an acquired taste."
"All right." She followed him into the small kitchen. "Can I help?"
"Not at the moment. Why don't you have a seat and we can talk about this situation while I get things ready?"
"Okay." Lori took a swallow of soda. "I really don't know what to do. Brad said I should only give it to you if something happened to him. But if they're still going to do whatever he was trying to prevent, maybe we should open it. Or, maybe we should talk to Brad."
"That's a possibility. The number Ray dialed was a Houston number, according to Lieutenant Chow." Clark moved swiftly about the kitchen, assembling his ingredients. "Will microwaved potatoes be okay?"
"Sure." Lori took another swallow of soda. "Look, at least let me set the table."
"All right. The plates are in that cupboard." Clark pointed with the frying pan. "How do you like your steak?"
"Huh? Oh, medium, please." Lori busied herself setting the table, still thinking. "You said they mentioned a 'contact' who warned them we were — doing something. What do you suppose it was? Leaving the Planet, maybe?"
"Maybe. I've been wondering what he meant by it."
"Do you suppose someone in the newsroom is spying on us?"
"It wouldn't be impossible, I guess. Who would be keeping track of your comings and goings, though?"
"I don't — " She broke off suddenly as a thought occurred to her. "Why that little — "
"Fred!" Lori said, indignantly. "He's been sitting on his butt all week while I made most of the donut runs!"
"You were attacked during a donut run, weren't you?" Clark asked, slowly.
"Yes, I was. And he tried to send me out on one this afternoon, even though the whole office knew I was assigned to you."
"Huh. Interesting coincidence, but we don't have any proof."
Lori barely heard him. Her mind was racing. "Ms. Chow said the call was to somebody in Houston, right?"
"And they're apparently after this package Brad gave me."
"And we've figured Gaia's Children and maybe U&B Technologies — which is based in Houston, by the way — are trying to stop the Mayflower launch, right?"
"So, what if someone in the office is a member of Gaia's Children? If they needed to keep track of me, they could have drafted him — or her — to do it."
"And you broke into their main computer," Clark said. "You can — " He gestured toward the living room. "Go ahead. Borrow my computer. Take a look at their membership rolls and see." He grinned. "My password is 'potatochip'."
"'Potatochip'?" She giggled. "Okay."
"And if Fred is the one who set us up, I think John should know."
"If he is, I don't think we should let on we know," Lori said. "We'll find out more if he doesn't know we know."
"Absolutely," Clark said, a delighted grin on his face. "Has anyone ever told you how smart you are?"
"Let's wait and see what we find before you say that," Lori said.
"Well, even if it isn't Fred, I bet you're in the ballpark," Clark said. "Go ahead. I'll call you when dinner's ready."
Clark found himself smiling as he carefully grilled the steaks, prepared the salad, and checked the potatoes. He selected one of the softer red wines to go with the meal, but in case she didn't like it, he made sure there was soda and milk available. He'd known since the first day that she'd worked at the Planet that Lori was a milk drinker. He'd come upon her in the Planet's lunchroom, with a tuna sandwich and a carton of milk in front of her. She'd been a little embarrassed, he recalled with a smile. He'd heard her taking a ribbing from Fred in the serving line about her preference a few moments before, so he had quietly purchased a carton of milk instead of his usual cup of coffee to go with his steak sandwich, then casually approached her table and asked if the other chair was taken. He'd been making an effort since he met her to be sure she was completely comfortable with him; the night he'd taken her to Kerry's had been the proof that he'd succeeded.
Lori was shy, he knew, and a lot quieter than Lois had been. He could see in her, however, the foundations of the brilliant investigative reporter Lois had become, without some of the more traumatic events that had scarred his "little tornado" and led her to armor herself against people who could hurt her.
He discovered he was frowning at the thought. He didn't want that to happen to Lori. How often had he wished during his marriage to Lois, that he'd been there for her during her teens and early twenties to help ease some of the hurt inflicted on her by her dysfunctional parents and later, Claude? He'd lost count. The two of them had been very happy for all the years of their marriage; he liked to feel that he'd helped to make up for her early years. Lois had certainly behaved as though he had, but now here was Lori, who wasn't Lois, but who carried her soul, young and vulnerable, and in many ways unsure of herself, yet already showing flashes of what she could be.
If their relationship was to work out, he was going to have to be very certain she stayed comfortable with him, no matter what his age. The many years of experience he'd acquired in dealing with all kinds of people, and the fact that he didn't look anywhere near a hundred and thirty-one were definite assets. In fact, he'd noticed her eyeing him surreptitiously when she thought he wasn't looking. So far, so good.
But even if, for some reason, things didn't work out, if the age gap was too much for her to handle, he wanted the best for her, and to stay her friend. He could settle for that if he had to.
On the other hand, there was nothing to say things wouldn't work out right, either. He was just going to have to make sure she regarded him as her closest friend, so that by the time he told her the full truth about himself, his age wouldn't be much of an issue. He had to let her know that she could count on him no matter what. That meant that before long the truth about his real relationship to Superman was going to have to come out, as it should have the first time. It was going to be a delicate thing to do, but it had to be done, and soon.
He could hear the faint hum of the computer in the living area, and a peek with his x-ray vision showed Lori concentrating on her task. That was another trait that seemed to be an integral part of her persona — the ability to focus completely on a task until she accomplished what she intended.
Whistling softly to himself, he transferred the steaks to plates and placed the potatoes and mushrooms next to them. Butter, sour cream and a little dish of chives went next to the salt and pepper shakers, and the cruet of salad dressing. Finally, he neatly zapped the candle in the center of the table with his heat vision, and stood back to examine the effect. Good. Now, should he interrupt what Lori was doing, or —
He was concentrating so hard on his options that Lori's triumphant exclamation startled him. He hurried into the living area. "I take it you found something?"
"Only the entire list of their membership," she said. "It's downloading right now."
"Nice job," he said.
"Thanks." She looked pleased. "Just let me finish here. The steaks smell terrific."
"They're all ready when you are."
"Ah, there it is. Done." She looked up. "Let's eat."
Lori sat back in her chair and regarded Clark across the table. He was smiling faintly at her, just listening to her chatter, she thought, and acting as if he enjoyed it. She'd been more or less monopolizing the conversation for a good twenty minutes, and Clark — well, how could the guy put up with it? Her mother always told her that she babbled when she got nervous, and it was probably true, but whether she admitted it or not, the day's adventures had left her a little shaken, and that seemed to open the flood gates.
He seemed to read her thoughts, or more likely the expression on her face gave her away, for he looked suddenly a little worried.
"Is something wrong, Lori?"
"No…yes." She inhaled deeply. "I'm sorry. I talk when I get nervous."
"Are you nervous of me?"
"Oh, no," she assured him. "It's just everything that happened today, and you're probably bored listening to me talking non-stop — " She broke off. "I'm doing it again, aren't I?"
"You've never bored me," he said.
"Really. In fact, I was wondering if I bored you. You haven't had much time for fun this last week."
"Yes, I have!" she contradicted him quickly. "I've liked working at the Planet — not all of it, of course, but especially working with you. You're such a…a great reporter. I don't think I could ever be as good, but I'm learning a lot."
He smiled. "I think you will be," he said. "In fact I'd bet on it."
"Yes." His teeth flashed, and Lori swallowed. The fact that Clark was as charming and attractive as he was didn't detract from the dinner, she thought. She had no idea what it was that had made him want to befriend her, but she wasn't going to argue.
"I have chocolate ice cream in the freezer for dessert," Clark suggested. "Do you still have room?"
Lori patted her stomach. "Well, I'm pretty stuffed. That was really delicious. Do you think we could wait a little while for dessert?" she added hopefully.
Clark chuckled. "Okay. In the meantime we can take a look at that list."
She nodded. "Let's."
There were not quite seven hundred names on the membership rolls of Gaia's Children, but Clark produced a list of the employees who worked at the Daily Planet building, and within a couple of minutes the computer had the match.
"Bingo," Clark said, quietly. He solemnly held out his hand and shook Lori's.
"Fred," Lori said. "When we're finished with this, I'm going to kill him."
"He may not know why they wanted him to spy on you," Clark said, slowly, "but after yesterday he had to suspect it wasn't on the up and up."
"If he thought at all," Lori said. "So Gaia is behind this after all."
"It sounds like it."
She stood up. "I'd like that ice cream, now."
"Are you all right?" Clark asked.
"Yes. Just tired and sort of confused."
"Just sit down there," Clark said. "I'll be back with your ice cream in a minute."
True to his word, he returned with the promised dish of chocolate ice cream, with a big puddle of fudge sauce poured over it and presented it to her with a flourish. "Here you go."
Lori accepted it and took a large bite. It was amazing how Clark always seemed to know exactly what she needed. She always felt better after a big dose of chocolate. "Thanks, Clark."
"You're welcome. We aim to please." Clark settled into the recliner with another, smaller bowl.
Lori ate in silence for several minutes. Finally, she said, "What do you think I should do? They're going to keep trying to get the package."
"And you said you think it won't stop them, anyway?"
"It may delay them, but you have to remember what we're dealing with here. The trouble with fanatics is that they're not only willing to die for their cause, they're willing to take a lot of innocent people with them."
"Like the people aboard the Mayflower."
"I think we need to talk to Brad. Maybe he can give us more to work with."
"Is the package safe where no one can find it?" Clark asked.
"It's safe," Lori said. "The day after Brad gave it to me, I put it somewhere no one will find it, and I won't lose it by accident. If…" She swallowed nervously, "If something happens to me, though, you'll get it."
Clark's smile faltered. "Nothing's going to happen to you. I won't let it."
She took a mouthful of slowly melting ice cream, looking at his concerned face. "Thanks. You're a good friend."
"I mean it, Lori. I won't let anything or anyone hurt you."
The funny thing was, she believed him.
She finished the ice cream and scraped the bowl, studying his face and the expression in his dark eyes. Clark meant it all right.
"Let me get rid of this," Clark said, suddenly. He scooped up the bowl and took it to the kitchen. When he returned a moment later, he settled down on the couch next to her. "On," he said.
The vid screen came on at once, showing some action movie in progress, with the hero blasting away at numerous bad guys with uncanny aim.
"News," Clark said.
The screen switched over at once to a local news channel. Lori relaxed back against the comfortable old couch, feeling the tension start to drain away for the first time since she had awakened from the gas, this afternoon.
"Tomorrow," Clark said, "we'll pick up our recording from Gaia HQ, and tell John about Fred, and we can try to get in contact with your brother. We definitely need to talk to him. And Arnie never got hold of me today, not that he had much of a chance, so I need to call him about that list…"
Lori nodded. His voice was becoming a pleasant murmur in the background, blending in with the cheerful voice of the weather forecaster. She let her head droop sideways a little against the comfortable smoothness of Clark's muscular shoulder. She really should sit up and take an interest in what he was saying, she thought, but her eyes were tired and grainy-feeling. She needed to rest them for just a few minutes. By that time, the battle was lost. Lori was asleep.
Lori stirred drowsily and snuggled deeper under the blanket. The tiny, hard couch that had been her bed for a little more than a week was much more comfortable this morning. Not far away, a pleasant male voice was speaking softly and for some reason the sound made her smile.
Slowly, she opened her eyes and blinked up at an unfamiliar ceiling. After a moment of blank surprise, memory returned. She had been at Clark's apartment last night and must have fallen asleep on his couch. There was a feather pillow under her head and what looked like a fine, hand-made quilt over her. From the bedroom, she could hear Clark's voice speaking. He must be talking on the phone. As she came to that conclusion, she heard a soft chime. The phone call had ended. She pushed the blanket aside and dropped her feet to the floor.
"Sleep well?" Clark asked. He was standing in the doorway of his bedroom, a cup of coffee in one hand.
"Yeah." She smothered a small yawn. "Sorry about that."
Clark smiled. "I'm not. You were pretty tired. Besides, while you were sleeping here, I knew you were safe from our friends." He started toward the kitchen. "Want some coffee?"
"Sure." Lori picked up her shoes and put them on.
"Here you go." He emerged from the kitchen with a second coffee cup. "I fixed it the way you like it."
"Thanks." She accepted the offering and sipped at it cautiously. "Mm, that's good."
"I thought we could stop at your place on the way, so you can change," Clark said. "I already talked to John. He's going to put Fred to reorganizing the Planet's morgue. That should keep him out of trouble for quite awhile."
Lori almost choked on her coffee and dissolved into giggles.
"I thought you'd like that," Clark said.
Lori nodded. "That's almost punishment enough," she said. "Not that I'm not going to make him pay for it, anyway."
"You don't see me objecting, do you?" Clark said.
Lori giggled again. "No," she said. "Just let me straighten myself up a little and we can go. By the way, where are we going?"
"Gaia HQ. We have recordings to retrieve. We can pick up breakfast on the way. I spoke to Arnie Frazier this morning, too. He'd like us to drop by as soon as we can, to talk about the list. Then, we need to get hold of your brother, if possible." He gestured toward his bedroom. "The bathroom's through there. I'll just sit here and finish my coffee."
An hour later, they approached the front entrance of STAR Labs.
A spreading lawn that separated it from other, neighboring structures looming over it on all sides, surrounded the low slung, white building. To it's right, on the other side of the avenue, was the corporate headquarters for MacroTech Enterprises, and to its left the towering edifice that housed VidCom Global Communications.
A security guard had them wait in the lobby until Arnold Frazier confirmed their appointment, then Clark and Lori clipped electronic visitors' badges to their collars and passed through the scanner into the inner areas of the building.
Lori followed Clark through a maze of hallways that left her completely turned around, but were obviously quite familiar to her companion. She had heard about the reputation of STAR Labs; everyone had, but until now, she had never expected to actually venture inside. The place was legendary. Eighty years ago, it had produced the prototype of the anti-gravity field, which made aircars not only possible but economical. Bernard Klein, the man who had been responsible for it, was listed in the history books along with Pasteur, Einstein, and other famous scientists in human history. More recently, STAR Labs had been the source of other great advances, including the drive that would carry the Mayflower across 4.3 light years of space to Alpha Centauri. Lori followed Clark silently, looking around in awe.
"Here we are." Clark stopped before a door and knocked.
Arnold Frazier was nothing like she had imagined, which was consistent with everything else that had happened to her so far this last week. Had it really only been ten days since she had gone full time at the Daily Planet? In some ways it seemed like much more and in others much less. The scientist was a huge bull of a man. In height, he stood almost a foot taller than Clark, with curly hair and a full beard that were a rich, golden blond, and eyes of a clear, sky blue. His body was massive, with broad shoulders and muscular arms, and his hand completely engulfed Lori's when Clark introduced her as his assistant.
"So," Clark said, "I take it you have some ideas about this stuff? What might they be manufacturing with it?" He indicated the list that lay on the scientist's cluttered desk.
The huge man nodded. "Actually, there are a limited number of things that would use this particular combination of equipment," he said. His voice was deep, but surprisingly soft. "This one in particular stands out." He indicated the item in question with a thick forefinger. "The micro laser frequency scanner. It's not available to the general public."
Clark's heavy eyebrows rose. "Then what would this bunch be doing with it?"
"That's a very good question," Frazier said.
"What is it?" Lori asked, looking cautiously at the huge scientist.
"Well…" How someone like Arnie Frazier could possibly appear scholarly, when he looked for all the world like a professional wrestler, Lori couldn't have imagined until she saw it. "This is off the record, is that understood?"
"Naturally," Clark said. "You can trust Ms. Lyons. I guarantee it."
"A micro laser frequency scanner is a relatively new development," Frazier said. "In general, it's used in the process of covert signal transmission and reception. Its principle is similar to the one used in the pinhead mikes I gave you the other day, Clark, but infinitely more subtle and precise. You hide a signal in the background noise that's present in every radio transmission, but using this it's virtually impossible for even the most sensitive, modern instrument to detect it, even if the signal is known to be there." He paused for effect. "Unless, of course, you have the correct reception equipment, which also involves this device. Naturally this makes it extremely difficult to jam the signal, or trace it to its origin, for that matter."
"Besides communication," Lori asked, suddenly, "what could it be used for? And why would a group like Gaia's Children be using such a thing?"
"My question is where they got it," Dr. Frazier said.
"You'll notice that information isn't shown on this list, either," Clark said. "Where would it be available?"
"STAR Labs has one," Dr. Frazier said. "But the transfer of this kind of technology would be completely illegal. The only source would be one of the electronics firms that does classified work for the government."
Lori looked at Clark. "Like U&B Technologies."
"Could be," Clark said. "What about Lori's question, Arnie? What could it be used for, besides communications?"
Dr. Frazier scratched his beard. "The main use is by the military, but I can't really say anything more. What I've told you borders on the illegal, already."
"Would it be possible to, say, start a timer, or trigger a bomb with it? Or, maybe send instructions to a computer aboard a spacecraft?" Clark asked.
"I didn't tell you any of that," Dr. Frazier said. "But it would be logical, wouldn't it? Not that I'm saying that that is what it does."
"Hmmm," Clark said, as Dr. Frazier handed him the list. He folded the paper, and tucked it into a pocket. "I see. Thanks for the non-information, Arnie."
"You're welcome. I hope I was of some assistance. If you need any more — um — non-help, be sure to call me."
"A computer-generated list — especially one obtained the way we got this one — isn't credible evidence by itself," Clark said, as they descended the front steps of STAR Labs. "Not for something this serious. Until we get something more solid to incriminate Gaia, there's nothing law enforcement can do about it. We have to find something concrete that we can bring them."
"Yeah." Lori glanced back over her shoulder at the famous building. "You were right — he's certainly different."
"And very involved in his work," Clark said. "He's a really good guy, and definitely one of a kind. I can always count on him for help, though."
"So, now what?" Lori asked.
"Now we go back to the office and listen to the Gaia tapes," Clark said. "You need to try to contact Brad, and then you and I have to go somewhere private and talk. I have something important to explain to you — something you need to know."
"Did I do something wrong?" Lori asked.
"No," Clark said. He smiled wryly. "Absolutely not. You did something right. It's just time I explained something, that's all."
"Oh," Lori said, completely mystified.
Most of the material in the recordings was without interest to them.
Lori left a message for Brad to call her back, after being informed by an expressionless voice coming from an equally expressionless face on the vid screen, that Commander Lyons was extremely busy at the moment. She glanced up at Clark, a little annoyed.
"I think these people are a bunch of robots or something," she announced. "Nobody could keep their face that straight all the time."
"They say it comes from lots of practice," Clark said, a slight grin on his features, "but I have my doubts, too. Come on, let's go see what we managed to record, while we're waiting for him to get back to us."
The three recordings were separate from each other, and each was voice activated, so there were no long gaps of silence between conversations. Lori and Clark settled down to listen, but it wasn't until they had worked their way through the first two without results and were well into the third, two hours later, that Lori saw Clark sit up straight when a conversation began. His finger hit the stop button and he ran it back.
"What is it?" she asked.
"The caller's voice," Clark said. "It's the same person who was talking to Ray, back at that house."
"Are you sure? How can you tell?"
"Trust me," Clark said. "It's the same guy." He started the playback.
"Blackwell here," said the voice of the office's resident, clearly. They'd been hearing that voice for the past twenty minutes. A voice boomed out of the speaker.
"I'm looking for a progress report, Blackwell. What's the status of our project?"
"It's progressing well, sir. Our man has designed the program, and we'll be running an initial trial in the next day or two, as soon as we locate a suitable test subject."
"Excellent. Keep me updated. Remember; speed is of the essence. Is there any word on the package?"
"No, sir, not yet. I've dispatched the requested legal counsel, but the judge denied bail; the DA's office cited them as a flight risk. Our other team hasn't had any reasonable opportunity to acquire the girl. She's been with Kent constantly since — "
"I don't want to hear excuses, Blackwell. I want that package. When we execute the plan, if it's still in her hands, it will be a calamity. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir. We'll do our best."
"Do more than your best!"
"Yes, sir. We'll get it, sir." The chime of the vid phone disconnecting punctuated Blackwell's assurances.
Lori looked at Clark. "You were right. They're not stopping whatever it is. And they're still after me."
Clark put a hand over hers where it was clenched on the tabletop. "We knew they would be. I won't let them harm you. And we're going to stop whatever it is."
"But how can we stop them? We don't even know for sure what they're up to. And what if they come after us the way they did before?"
"It won't matter." Clark slipped the tiny chips from the recorder, dropped them into a case and tucked it into his jacket. "You and I, together, are going to find out what their 'project' is. As for the other…" He glanced around the conference room. "It's too public here. Come on; let's find a little more privacy. I've got something important to tell you."
"Where are we going?" Lori asked, as the two of them headed toward the elevator.
Clark glanced down at her, his face unusually serious. "I thought your place might be best. Or mine."
"Mine has kind of thin walls, if you want privacy," Lori said. "I think yours would probably be best."
Clark looked a little nervous, Lori thought, which was surprising. Her calm, laid-back co-worker never seemed ruffled by anything. One of the qualities she found most intriguing about him, aside from his charm and his admittedly devastating good looks, was the impression he gave of always being in control of a situation.
He glanced at her face again and smiled slightly. "Don't look so worried. It isn't anything bad — at least I hope not."
"Me?" she said. "You're the one who looks nervous!"
He grinned slightly. "I guess. This is kind of important, that's all, and I don't want you to be upset with me."
"Will I be?"
"I don't know. I hope not."
The elevator doors slid aside and Fred emerged. He glared at Lori as she moved sedately past him in Clark's wake.
"Done already?" she asked, as innocently as she could, while thoroughly enjoying the expression on his face.
"No," Fred answered shortly. As the elevator doors began to slide shut, Lori heard John bark Fred's name. The copy boy jumped, and slunk dejectedly in the direction of the editor's office.
Clark looked at her with mock-seriousness. "I could be wrong, but I think you're awfully pleased about Fred's misfortune," he said.
"Me?" she asked. "Whatever makes you say a thing like that after what he did to us?" She held up her forearms, still sheathed in NuSkin. "I think this stuff is about ready to come off, though."
Clark ran a finger gently across the thin covering. "I think you should give it another day or so, just to be sure."
"Well…" Lori began, reluctantly. The stuff made her feel conspicuous, but Clark's concern for her welfare was hard to ignore.
Whatever she was going to say was cut off in mid word as the elevator jolted violently, throwing her sideways into Clark, and she felt his arm clamp itself around her. Then, the moving car stopped with another, albeit slightly less-violent jerk.
"What th…" Clark looked up at the ceiling of the car, then down at the floor.
"What happened?" Lori asked, regaining her balance.
The elevator jolted again, and began to rise. Clark's arm released her carefully. "Are you all right?" he asked.
Lori nodded. "What happened?"
"We're headed up, and we shouldn't be." He broke off, tilting his head back, apparently looking hard at the ceiling. "So, that's it."
"What?" Lori asked again.
"I don't know how they managed it, but our friends, or their associates, are waiting for us on the roof," he said.
"How do you know?" Lori asked. "Besides, how would they know we were here?"
"There's a security camera in here for the protection of female employees," Clark explained. He pointed with his chin at the front left upper corner, and Lori looked, to see the small dark spot that marked the lens. "They're probably watching us now." He sighed, and it seemed to her as if he made a decision. "Okay. I planned to explain this to you very calmly and in private, in order to give you a chance to yell at me without witnesses." He grinned wryly. "But it looks as if they've forced my hand. Do you trust me, Lori?"
"You know I do." She threw a look over her shoulder at the lens again, feeling the skin between her shoulder blades begin to crawl.
He reached out calmly and hit the emergency stop button. The elevator jerked unsteadily to a halt between floors and an alarm began to sound.
"It should take them a couple of minutes to override that," he said. "In the meantime, we're leaving. If I give you a boost, can you open the ceiling panel?"
Lori nodded. "I think so." She still had no idea what he intended, but what she had said was true. When it had happened, she didn't know, but she trusted Clark Kent. If he said he could get them out, she would go along.
"Okay, step into my hands."
Lori obeyed. He lifted her with no apparent effort, until she was within inches of the ceiling, and held her steady. Lori fumbled with the little catch for a moment, then pushed the panel back.
Clark lifted her higher. "Climb," he instructed. "And hang on."
She grasped the edge of the aperture with one hand and thrust the other arm through the opening. Clark pushed from beneath, and with surprisingly little effort she emerged onto the top of the elevator. The surface rocked under her, and she grasped for handholds on the metal surface with fingers that suddenly felt cold in spite of the warmth that permeated the inside of the elevator shaft. Far above her, the blackness was broken by a tiny square of light. Below she could see the dim elevator shaft extending down into pitch blackness.
Clark boosted himself through the opening, his broad shoulders brushing both sides. He slid the door back into place and knelt beside her on the unsteady surface. There was a jolt, and the elevator rocked unsteadily. Lori gasped, and held more tightly to her small measure of safety.
"Here, hold onto me," Clark directed. He extended a hand.
Lori shifted her grip from the cold metal to Clark, and he stood slowly up on the swaying surface, bringing her with him.
"All right?" he asked.
She gulped and nodded. "What do we do now?"
"Now you find out something a little prematurely," he explained, drily. "I couldn't do it in there with the camera on us." He slipped one arm under her knees, and the other around her back. "Ready?"
She nodded jerkily, and turned her head to examine his face, only half visible in the gloom. Was it possible?
"Good. Put your arms around my neck and just relax. We'll be out of here in a minute."
Lori obeyed wordlessly, and felt them lift effortlessly into the air. She found herself holding her breath as Clark floated sideways several feet to clear the elevator, and began a slow, gentle descent.
For a second, she closed her eyes, then opened them again to look at him.
He hadn't changed. He was looking back at her, his expression a little concerned.
"Are you all right?"
She took a deep breath and tried to banish the detachment that seemed to have gripped her as they drifted slowly downward. "Yeah." The word came out as a squeak. She cleared her throat. "Yeah. I'm fine."
Above her metal screeched, and she looked up. The elevator was moving again, and as she watched, it vanished upward into the gloom. The only indication of its presence was when the tiny square of light at the top of the shaft was suddenly blocked out.
Their gradual descent came to a halt; Clark was hovering before the doors that opened to the second floor. He gave a small grunt of satisfaction. "Good. Nobody out there. Hang on, I'm going to have to use one hand."
Lori took a firmer grip on his neck and he removed the hand behind her back. With care, he worked his fingers between the doors and exerted pressure to force them open. When he had cleared a space sufficiently wide, he thrust the toe of one foot into the space, removed his hand and took a grip that afforded him better leverage. Lori understood. Focusing on what he was doing seemed to lift the veil of shock that had descended on her thinking processes. Clark didn't want to leave any marks on the doors, any evidence of how they had escaped the elevator shaft. Slowly, she began to smile. Let them wonder!
The space between the doors was wide enough for her, now. Carefully, Clark released her and held her until she had one foot securely on the floor, and both her hands were firmly grasping the doors. With one of his hands bracing her from behind, she squeezed through them, and was safely in the hall beyond. Once his hands were both free, Clark was able to ease the doors open farther, and a second later they were standing together before the elevator, with the doors tightly closed, and no evidence to betray how they had gotten here.
For a long moment, they simply stood staring at each other, Clark with a touch of apprehension in his expression. Then he said softly, "Are you mad, Lori?"
She gave a tiny smile and shook her head, the feeling of unnatural calmness still possessing her somewhat. "No, I don't think so. Surprised. Maybe stunned. I'm not sure what I am, but I don't think I'm mad. Are you going to do something about those guys on the roof?"
"Yeah. Come on. I don't want to leave you here alone, and the stairwell is the fastest." He opened the door to the stairs and gestured her through.
They were on the second floor landing, and Clark glanced around, checking the area thoroughly, Lori thought. That must be the only way he was able to maintain his incredible secret. As she watched, he took a step back.
Lori blinked, then gasped as he spun suddenly, the miniature whirlwind that he had become changing from grey to blue and red in the space of seconds.
He came to a stop; Superman stood before her, the man who had saved her life four months ago, who had come in a flash when she had cried out in shock and surprise the night she had discovered her ransacked apartment, her coworker whom she admired and respected. He held out his hands to her.
"Come on," he said, and a little smile played on his lips. "I think your first Superman exclusive is waiting."
"Somehow," Clark was saying to her almost an hour later, "they remotely seized control of the Daily Planet building's central computer, according to the techs. They don't know how, yet."
He had just returned from speaking to the frustrated computer techs that had been brought in to find and undo whatever damage had been done. Lori examined his face closely, for about the hundredth time since he had shown her the truth and wondered how she had ever been deceived.
And, yet, in his Clark persona, he didn't seem like Superman. Superman stood stiffly, spoke formally; Clark was casual and relaxed, but when she had met Superman for the first time that night on campus she had been impressed by his kindness and consideration for her, and thinking back now, she knew why his smile had seemed so familiar. Superman didn't smile as much as Clark, but when he did, it was identical to her friend's.
Friend? Did Superman have friends?
Well, why not? she asked herself. He had a family; just because they flew around in the skies of Metropolis didn't make them less of a family than anyone else's, and Clark was certainly her friend. Being one of the supermen didn't mean he didn't have feelings. In fact, she was sure he did, as both Superman and Clark. So, he was still her friend, a good friend, a friend who had saved her life, and who had trusted her with something about himself that she suspected not many people knew. Did anything else matter?
Clark was looking at her, a trace of worry in his expression. It had been there since he had rescued her from the elevator. That, more than anything, convinced her that he hadn't changed.
"Are you all right?" he asked, also for about the hundredth time in the last hour.
She nodded. "Yes, I am. Are you?"
"Clark, you look awfully worried. Don't be. Nothing's changed — well, nothing important."
"I hope not."
"Trust me, it hasn't. That whole thing with the computer is spooky, though. I keep thinking about what Dr. Frazier told us this morning. Do you suppose it was a test of the micro laser whatchamacallit?"
Clark settled a hip on the corner of her desk. "I suppose it might have been the micro laser thing, but these people seem to have access to quite a bit of advanced technology and people who know how to use it. That altered stunner wasn't any accident, either. Whoever worked on that really knew what he was doing."
"Yeah," she said. "I heard Lieutenant Chow say something about that on the way to the police station. My attention was more on my stomach than on what the two of you were talking about."
"Yeah," Clark said, ruefully. "I'm sorry about what happened. It seemed like an opportunity to learn something about what was going on."
She made a face. "Don't apologize. It wasn't too comfortable at the time, but it was worth it." She lowered her voice. "At least now I know why you weren't sick. I don't feel like such a wimp."
"You were never a wimp!" Clark said. He paused. "Look, are you sure you want to put my name on this?" He gestured at her computer screen. "It's your first Superman exclusive."
"Yeah." Lori nodded. "It's only fair. Without you, I wouldn't have gotten the interview or the story. Besides, you helped me write it. I'd feel like a fraud if I didn't give you at least half the credit."
"I only tweaked it in a few places. Your writing style is fine."
"Yeah, 'tweaked it' — and improved the article a hundred percent."
He smiled. "Okay, 'Kent and Lyons' it is." He leaned forward and spoke more softly. "We still need to talk. I want to explain some things."
She smiled, too. "I want to ask you some things, myself."
"I figured that," Clark said. "Since this kind of disrupted our plans, may I take you to dinner tonight, Ms. Lyons? We can discuss it, then."
"Will it be private?" she asked. "This isn't something that I want to broadcast."
He grinned suddenly. "I knew I was right about you. Yes, it will be private. I was thinking Chez Kent again, unless you have an objection."
"Not a bit." Lori put a timid hand on his sleeve. "I want to know why you decided to tell me, Clark. You've only known me for about four months…off and on. And more off than on, really."
"That's the easiest question to answer of all," Clark said, quietly. "Think about it, and I'll bet you figure it out for yourself." He winked at her, a cheerful grin on his features. "I know who my friends are, and whom I can trust. Now, you better send that to John. He still needs to fill up space on page three, and I have to make a call to Lieutenant Chow."
"Right," Lori said. "After that I'll try calling Brad again."
Brad was still "extremely busy", according to the man who took her call a short time later. Lori left another message for her brother to call and disconnected, with an undefined sense of apprehension nagging at her. After a moment, she tried another number.
"What's the matter?" Clark asked, from behind her.
She almost jumped. "Don't do that, Clark! I've had enough scares today!"
"Sorry. What's wrong?"
How did he know that? she wondered. "Brad is supposedly busy, and no one answers his home phone. Sharon quit her job a month ago, so she could finish all the details before the Mayflower launch, so she should be there. Something's not right."
"Hmmm." Clark frowned. "I just talked to Velma Chow. That number Ray dialed was to a phone bank in an office building." He paused significantly. "U&B Technologies, which I'm sure is a complete surprise to you. They couldn't trace which office it was routed to, though, so that's a dead end. Let me try a couple of my contacts in Houston and see what they can find out about your brother." He lowered his voice. "Ultra Woman's been keeping tabs on Brad for me; she may be able to tell me something. While I'm doing that, I'd like you to do something for me."
"Velma Chow told me the owners of the house where we were held are a Belinda and Morrison Williams. The address was 143 Ostrich Circle in Deer Grove, New Troy. See what you can find out about them, would you? Where they work, who their closest relatives are, criminal records, and so forth. Chow said they're on vacation in Hawaii right now, so someone might have known, and — "
"Sort of borrowed their house," Lori said. "I get it. I'll do my best." She laughed shortly.
"What?" Clark asked.
"The name of the development — Deer Grove. If any of the residents there saw a deer within miles of the place, they'd probably call animal control."
"Probably," Clark said. "You know developers. Image is everything. The one next door is called Wolf Hollow. The only wolves there are almost certainly of the two-legged variety."
"That's for sure," Lori said. "Okay, I'll do my best."
An hour later, Clark put down the phone, frowning. At her little desk, Lori was still absorbed in her research. He rose and headed for John Olsen's office.
A quick peek with his x-ray vision showed John apparently editing articles for the evening's publication. Clark knocked softly.
"Come in," John's voice said.
Clark entered and shut the door. "May I have a few moments of your time, John?"
"Sure." John made a final edit and leaned back in his chair. "Nice little article."
"Lori did most of it. I was too busy catching bad guys," Clark said with a smile.
"I still spot the trademark Kent touch. You're sure you want to share the byline?"
"John, it was *her* story! She insisted I put my name on it, too, because I touched it up in a couple of places."
John regarded him for a moment. "I'll take your word for it, then. Kent and Lyons it is. I take it there was actually more to it than this?"
"Some, but nothing we could print. Lori knows. I told her."
John's eyebrows rose. "About you? That was fast. You're sure you can trust her not to slip?"
"As sure as I am of you. She only knows that I'm — " He made the flying motion with his hand. "I figured that was enough for one day."
"I'd say so," John said, a faint grin on his lips. "She's a cool one. I'd never have guessed anything out of the ordinary happened."
"Yeah." Clark paused uncertainly.
John waited for him to speak, and when he didn't, asked, "Anything else?"
"Yeah. There may be a problem with her brother's family. They seem to have disappeared. It may not be as bad as it sounds, but I think I'm going to be headed for Houston shortly, and I'd like to take her along."
"Any particular reason? She'd be safer here."
Clark shook his head. "Not really. I'll fill you in later, but I want her with me. Besides, she's observant, and we work well together."
John eyed him, a little smile on his lips. "Fallen like a rock, haven't you, Clark?"
"Yeah." Clark gave a sheepish laugh. "Is it that obvious?"
"To me it is. I've been there myself, remember?"
"I know. How *is* Marilyn these days?" Clark asked.
"Beautiful, as always." John smiled at the mention of his wife, then nodded abruptly. "All right, take her along, but I want the whole story, later."
"You'll get it. I — " He broke off. "Uh-oh."
"The London shuttle on approach to Metro Shuttleport is out of control."
"Go." John waved at the window. "Now."
Clark was gone on the word.
Lori looked up from her computer screen as the monitors lining the walls of the newsroom suddenly increased their volume, and stared in horror at the scene that appeared.
The shuttle flight from London was approaching the landing strip at Metro Shuttleport, but something was badly amiss, even to her untutored eyes. The huge craft was coming in too fast, and at too steep an angle; that much was obvious, and it wasn't leveling out. Lori wanted to look away, but her eyes remained locked to the horrifying sight.
A familiar red and blue figure, the size of a gnat, appeared on the screen, rocketing toward the stricken shuttle from behind, and gaining as the entire newsroom watched. The silence was so complete that when someone coughed softly, it made her heart jump. Lori found she was gripping the arms of the chair so hard her fingers were beginning to cramp.
The red and blue gnat matched speeds with the shuttle, eased up underneath and made contact with the huge underbelly, then, with a slowness that was literally agonizing, the angle of approach changed. Clark wasn't attempting to fight the craft's momentum, Lori realized a second later. He was working with it. Gradually, the shuttle's nose began to lift.
The pilot must have realized what was happening, for the engines abruptly cut off. Suddenly aware of the need to breathe, Lori exhaled and inhaled explosively.
A hand came down gently on her shoulder, and she looked up to find John Olsen standing just behind her, his eyes fixed on the monitor screens.
Clark was bringing the shuttle in now, in a wide, gradual turn. Lori forced herself to take another breath. She had, of course, seen the super heroes in action before on the vid screen, but for some reason, this time it was a far more personal experience. As she watched, the cameras zoomed in on Superman as he gently lowered the enormous shuttle onto the runway.
"He did it," her editor said, softly. "Every time I see something like that, it takes my breath away." He looked down at her and there was a smile in his eyes. "I hear you and he had a little adventure a while ago."
"Well, yes. He gave me an exclusive," Lori said. "Superman was very nice to — "
"I know," John said. "Clark told me." He smiled at her. "You'll do," he said, a little obscurely. "Nice job."
It was over an hour later that Clark walked into the newsroom from the stairwell.
Until the techs determined what had been done to the elevator, the car was locked on the ground floor; employees were already grumbling, Lori knew. Security had had a few choice words for Clark and her about their escape from the elevator, too, but Clark had taken it in stride, and pointed out that if the elevator had malfunctioned in a slightly different way they might have been killed. He and Ms. Lyons had not wanted to wait to find out.
Lori had kept quiet and let him handle it, simply observing from her new perspective. Clark was so confident and competent. He seemed to know exactly what to say to handle people. She wished she knew how he did it.
Watching him now, coming across the office, she saw what she had noticed before, the restrained power and subtle grace in his movements. Clark, she admitted very privately, was an extremely attractive man.
Which brought to mind the recent events in the elevator. For a moment, she replayed it in her head, when the elevator lurched and he'd caught her and held her tightly to his side. In spite of all the other things going through her mind…she'd enjoyed that part.
Why had he told her about his other self? The question had been in her mind ever since it had happened. It had a lot of implications, some of which she wasn't going to deal with right now. If Superman's real life was that of a reporter, then it followed that he probably wasn't the only one who maintained a dual identity. They were all descendents of the first Superman who had married an Earth woman, and had children. So, who had Superman been in his civilian life?
Slowly, she lifted her gaze to look across the room toward the rows of photos on the wall near the elevator. She'd seen the picture of Clark's ancestor, the first Clark Kent, and his partner, Lois Lane, who had also been his wife. Lane and Kent — one of the legendary reporting teams in the Planet's history. She'd mentioned then how much Clark looked like his ancestor, and Clark had looked a little uncomfortable. The date on that photo was right, too — 1998…a little over five years after the appearance of the Kryptonian. Unless there was a big flaw in her reasoning, that Clark Kent had been the original Superman, a reporter here at the Planet when it had been only a newspaper. No wonder Clark had said the Kents had a lot of ties to the Daily Planet.
She closed her eyes and rubbed them with the heels of her hands. This was going to take a lot of thinking about later, when she had more time. For some reason, Clark had chosen to befriend her, spent a good deal of time with her, and seemed to enjoy her company. He'd said to think about why he'd told her the truth about himself, which had to be one of the biggest secrets going, because it told her that not only Superman, but the other supermen and women out there also led lives as ordinary people. They didn't just live on some lonely mountaintop somewhere. Instead, they lived and worked among the rest of humanity as everyday men and women. The super family's secret couldn't be carelessly cast around to just anyone…so, why had he told her?
An outrageous thought popped into her head, only to be dismissed at once. Could he possibly be attracted to her? No, of course not. If Marcy's appearance hadn't gotten his attention, why should he look at her? She looked nothing like Marcy; she was practical instead of outrageous, she didn't have a clue how to be flirtatious, she was shy and inhibited, and, although she was admittedly a reasonably attractive woman, next to her spectacular sister she was just, plain mousy. And she babbled when she got nervous, too, a trait her mother had assured her was guaranteed to chase away potential romantic partners. Since Mother wanted her to be a successful career woman, that wasn't so bad from her point of view.
Lori wasn't so sure. She certainly wanted a career as an investigative journalist — that had been her goal for years, but it didn't mean marriage and a family was out of the picture, either. And then, after meeting Clark, all her mother's warnings about marriage stifling a woman's career had begun to seem a little hollow.
Oh, Clark was at least eight years her senior, married once and now a widower to boot, but somehow that didn't seem to matter much.
But he had turned out to be Superman, too. He could have just about any woman he wanted; why would he be interested in her now, if he ever had been? She was just a kid, anyway.
Lori sighed, feeling unaccountably depressed, then determinedly brought her mind back again to the question of why he'd told her about his other job.
He'd said he knew he could trust her; that might be part of the reason, she supposed, but not all of it, surely. He wouldn't tell every person he trusted about Superman. Why her, specifically?
"Lori?" Clark's voice brought her out of her thoughts. "Is anything the matter? You look upset."
How did he *do* that? she wondered again, composing her features quickly.
"No — not really. I'm a little worried about Brad and Sharon — and the kids."
"I don't blame you." He settled on the corner of her desk again. "I talked John into sending you with me to Houston. We can leave as soon as you get the chance to pack a bag. In the meantime, I've got some news."
"I talked to various technical personnel about the shuttle that nearly crashed. They were more willing to open up to — you know — than they might be to a reporter. Somehow, the shuttle's computer malfunctioned."
Lori felt the blood draining from her face. "The test they were talking about," she said.
"Probably," Clark agreed, very soberly.
"Clark, what are we going to do?"
"We're going to catch them and expose their scheme. I don't think freedom of expression covers killing people and crashing multi-billion dollar space ships."
"Neither do I."
"Did you manage to dig up anything?"
"Yes, I did." Lori brightened slightly. "It might be what we're looking for."
"Okay, let's hear it."
"I checked on any criminal records for both of them — none. They're model citizens as far as I could discover," Lori said. "None of their close relatives has any record I could find, either, but then I got an idea and decided to see if any of their names matched the membership list for Gaia's Children, or if any of them have any background in technology. That's where I hit the jackpot."
"I see. Okay, I'll bite. What did you find?"
"Belinda Williams' brother, Edwin Gossett, is some kind of high-ranking type with Gaia's Children," she said. "And not only that, he's a senior vice president for U&B Technologies. Address of record: Houston, Texas."
"That's it," Clark said, softly. "The connection. Lori, you're brilliant!"
"Thanks." Lori was almost afraid to make the next suggestion for fear of what they might find. "I think we better open the package. Brad said to open it if something happened to him. If he's disappeared, that's something, isn't it?"
Clark nodded. "I'd say so. I wanted to suggest it, but he's your brother. I didn't want to push, either."
"I'll get it." She got to her feet.
Clark's eyebrows went up. "It's here?"
"Yeah. It's in the safe in Mr. Olsen's office. I asked him to put it there for safety the day after my graduation."
The package was sitting innocently on a shelf in the very back of the office safe. John Olsen retrieved it without comment. "Here you go."
"Thanks, Mr. Olsen." Lori took it, surprised to find that her hand was shaking. "I really appreciate this."
"No problem, Lori." John didn't look at the package. "Be careful while you and Clark are in Houston. These people are playing hardball."
"I promise I will be, sir."
"I'll hold you to that." He turned back to his computer. "Bring me back a story, but don't get yourself killed. I'll see you in a few days."
Clark had already turned off his computer and was tidying up his desk when she left the editor's office. He closed a drawer as she approached and stood up, not even glancing at the little parcel. "We can open that when we're in private. Come on, let's go."
He grinned slightly. "No time like the present. We're going to find out what happened to your brother and his family, and catch these people."
"Okay. Let me just shut down my computer."
"I'll let John know we're leaving." Clark stood up and headed for his editor's office.
"Which flight are we taking?" Lori asked, as they descended the stairs to the ground floor.
Clark winked at her, and lowered his voice. "Superman Express, unless you have an objection. I guess we'll have to put off dinner at Chez Kent until later. This is a bit more important."
Lori nodded agreement. "I know. It can wait."
Clark pushed the unpowered side door of the lobby open for her. "When this is all over, we still need to have that talk. I want to explain some things as soon as I can, though."
"Yeah. I guess you don't tell this sort of thing to everyone, do you?"
"Definitely not." Clark let her go ahead of him and indicated the slidewalk. "You'll probably need to pack an overnight bag, just in case; then we'll go."
As they boarded the slidewalk and took their places among the late afternoon crowds that were the beginning of rush hour, Clark glanced around, trying to spot anyone exhibiting any undue interest in them. He could see Lori doing the same, and instinctively slipped a protective arm around her shoulders. She didn't object, and he could hear her heart rate speed up slightly. He glanced at her briefly, noting a slight flush on her cheeks, and wondered exactly how much he should tell her.
It was funny, really. He had no problem dealing with most people. He'd gotten so he could read even subtle nuances in expression and body language like a book. Coupled with other physiological reactions, like pulse rate and the changes in scent produced by different emotions, it was as close to mind reading as it was possible to get. The Kryptonian telepathic ability didn't really compare to it, as that was primarily verbal communication, and didn't involve anything past the surface thoughts, anyway. But with Lori, he was unsure. He and Lois had been so attuned to each other in the later years of their marriage that often they didn't even need to speak to know what the other needed or wanted, but Lori wasn't Lois. In some ways she was quite mature, in others she was very young and unsure of herself. He sensed she was a good deal less confident than she wished to appear, too, and above all, he had no wish to damage her slowly developing self confidence. He had a strong suspicion her mother had done enough in that department already. Her reactions to Marcy the day of her graduation told him that there was some conflict there, too, and he could guess what it might be. He personally didn't care for Marcy's kind of flamboyant beauty, although he knew that many men did. To him, Lori was infinitely prettier than her sister, but Lori probably didn't see it that way. That was something he was going to have to work on. At least the way she reacted to him in the elevator, when he'd held her to him to save her from falling, had told him that she wasn't indifferent to him, and he'd seen her sneaking glances at him last night at his apartment. That was definitely a good sign. Maybe it was time to let her see some interest on his part — subtly, so as not to scare her away. He was prepared to take as long as necessary to win her love, but he didn't want to wait too long. The human mating dance was a complicated thing, he mused. One misstep could set you back right to the beginning if you weren't careful. And it wasn't any easier the second time around.
At Lori's apartment, she gathered a small overnight case, packed a change of clothing for the office, a set of casual clothes, her nightdress and toiletries. While she was doing that, Clark made a quick thirty second trip to his place for the needed supplies, and was back before she finished snapping the catches. Her eyes widened at the show of ability. "Wow, that didn't take long."
"Didn't need to." He glanced at the little package lying on the table. "Ready for the moment of truth?"
She nodded reluctantly. "I suppose so. Can't you just x-ray it?"
He hesitated. "I could, I guess. Do you want me to?"
Lori swallowed, then made a face. "I guess not. Here. You open it."
Clark took the package, and tore off the wrapping. Inside was a small box, and, after a brief hesitation, he opened it.
"What is it?" Lori asked.
Clark upended the box. A slip of paper and a key dropped into his palm. "It looks like a key for a safe box." He flattened out the paper. "Yeah. It's one of those places that rents them out. Here's the address, and the number of the box. It's in Houston."
"That makes sense," Lori said. "I guess we'll have to wait until we get to Houston, then."
"We'll have to wait until tomorrow," Clark said. "They close at four. It's six-thirty here, now."
"What? Let me see that!"
Clark held out the paper for her to read, and Lori stared at the hours of operation in dismay. "I don't believe this!"
"Lori, it's okay." Clark folded up the paper and tucked it and the key into her hand. "We already have a pretty good idea where to look, tonight, and we can head for this place first thing in the morning."
He could see her visibly take control of herself, and smiled, not without a touch of sadness. Lori had many similarities to Lois; but there were things that were definitely unique to her, and patience seemed to be one of them. For a moment, he missed the human tornado that Lois had been; there was a part of him that would never stop missing her, he knew. Lori wasn't Lois, but there were things about her that he had already begun to love as well, and she had whatever it was that inevitably drew them together throughout time, for want of a better word, Lois's soul, the other half of his own without which he was incomplete.
"What's the matter?" Lori's voice pulled him out of his thoughts.
"You looked so sad for a minute. Is something wrong?"
"No, not really." With an effort, he shook off the unaccustomed mood. "Are you ready to go?"
She nodded, thrust the key and slip of paper into her overnight case and snapped the catches a second time. "I think so. If I've forgotten anything, I guess I can buy it there."
"If you need something, I'll come back for it," he said. "You told me once you're not afraid of heights — does that include cloud height?"
"Uh huh." Lori smiled confidently at him. "I know you won't let me fall."
"Not a chance," he said softly. He met her eyes for a long moment, a smile in his own, then turned and scooped up the case. Quickly, he slipped the hand holding the small bags under her knees and the other behind her back and lifted her in his arms. "Put your arms around my neck," he added. "I'm going to take us up fast, before anyone notices."
They lifted off and floated out the window. Lori reached back to close it behind them and then Clark made a rapid ascent straight up.
Lori was completely silent until they leveled off just below the layer of rain clouds that had been slowly gathering since shortly before noon. When he looked back at her, she was watching him with a puzzled expression in her eyes. She looked down at once, and he could see a flush creeping up her neck. Hoping that she understood what he'd tried to tell her, Clark set his course for Houston and poured on the speed.
The Tumbleweed Motel was a little picturesque establishment on the outskirts of the vast, modern city of Houston.
Lori set her dressing case down in the small, clean room, opened it and removed her hairbrush. A glance in the mirror showed her that, as she had feared, her hair looked as if she had been in a high wind. She grimaced, and glanced involuntarily at the connecting door that led to Clark's room. She had a few moments to freshen up, and then she and Clark would head out for the first part of their investigation. They had decided that they would have to adjust their strategy, depending upon what they found, but the first thing they needed to do was to locate Edwin Gossett. Clark wanted to hear him speak in order to confirm that he was or was not their man.
During the flight, her initial shyness at Clark's veiled hint had died down, to be replaced by cautious optimism, but she knew he was right; if she'd understood him correctly, it was something the two of them could talk out later. The top priority here was to find Brad and his family, and locate any proof that existed involving a connection between U&B Technologies and Gaia, and what their scheme might be involving the Mayflower.
Outside, she heard a characteristic whoosh that had become familiar to her in the last few days and for an instant wondered where Clark was going. Then there was a knock on the connecting door between their rooms. Clark's voice said, "Lori? Are you decent?"
"Just a second," she called, and hurriedly ran the brush through her hair. A moment later she knocked on the panel. "I'm ready, Clark.
Clark opened the door at once. "Come on in. I'd like to introduce you to someone."
A woman was standing behind Clark, and the resemblance between the two of them was unmistakable. She was tall, with jet-black hair, Clark's faintly Asian eyes, and wearing the uniform of Ultra Woman, the super hero who made Houston her home. Like Superman, she wore no mask, thereby leaving the very clever impression that she had nothing to hide.
"This is Lori Lyons, my assistant," Clark said. "Lori, this is — "
"Rhonda Klein." Ultra Woman held out a pink-gloved hand. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Ms. Lyons. Clark's told me a lot about you and your family." She glanced at Clark's surprised face. "Don't look so flabbergasted, Clark. If you trust her, that's good enough for me."
Clark gave a little laugh. "Thanks, Ronnie."
"I'm pleased to meet you," Lori said, feeling slightly stunned by the speed of events.
"Call me Ronnie," Ultra Woman said. "Now, to business. I was about to call you when you called me, Clark. I'd been trying to track down Commander Lyons and his family for over an hour, after I discovered he was missing. Apparently, the police and the military are, too. The only information I've been able to turn up is that about noon they were seen to get into a green or blue aircar with Texas plates. They were accompanied by two men in business suits, no other description. I've been going crazy trying to dig more info from those close-mouthed military types. They're denying there's any problem. I'm at a dead end."
"That's typical," Clark said. "Lori found some stuff that might help, though…"
When he finished, Rhonda Klein nodded thoughtfully. "That's more than I've found out. Okay, now what?"
"If this Gossett is behind Commander Lyons' disappearance," Clark said, "we have a lead, at least. U&B Technology has apparently been donating money and some technical expertise to Gaia. We need to try to find a connection between the two, at least enough to raise some suspicions. But first, we need to locate Lyons and his family. Would U&B Technology still be open at this hour?"
Rhonda Klein glanced at the practical metal wrist talker she wore on her left hand. "They're probably open for another hour, at least."
"We need to get in there," Clark said.
"They're a high tech firm," Rhonda said, "with government contracts. They're going to have fairly high security."
"Like STAR Labs?" Lori asked.
"Probably," Clark said.
"If they're like STAR Labs, it seems to me that getting into the building would be the hardest part." She had been feeling nearly useless in the presence of the super heroes, but this was something about which she felt fairly certain.
"I agree," Clark said. "Once we're past the security checkpoint, it gets easier, but we'll still need employee badges. I suppose we could do some super speed pickpocketing."
"But those won't have the right pictures," Lori objected. "I have an idea. They wouldn't have a security checkpoint on the roof, would they?"
"Probably not," Clark said. "There's always a sensor field with metal detectors; an aircar can't come within a hundred yards without being spotted and warned off. We can do a little recon work to be sure, but we still need badges."
"How about we print our own?" Lori suggested. "If I can get into Security's computer, I can do it."
"You weren't able to get into their system before," Clark said. He was looking at her expectantly.
"No, but that was from the outside," Lori said. "I couldn't get through their firewall. If you can get me inside, I can tap into their LAN system directly. Remember, I told you my best friend in high school taught me some things about hacking. I'll need photos of the three of us, the computer from my apartment, and the little brown, leather case on the floor beside it. And some super help."
"You'll have all of that you can use," Clark said. "What's your idea?"
"Okay," Lori said. "Here it is. See what you think…"
She spoke quickly, outlining what she had in mind. When she finished, Clark looked at Rhonda. "Do you see anything wrong with it?"
"Nope," Rhonda said. "I like it."
"Oh, one last thing," Lori said. "We'll need some of that plastic stuff they use to laminate the badges."
"I can get that from Planet Security," Clark said. "I'll be right back."
The employees of U&B Technologies normally entered the building through a security gate in the front lobby. There, their badges were checked via a scanner that verified that the employee in question did indeed belong in the building. They had no reason to expect the unauthorized personnel to enter from above.
The sun was sitting on the horizon when Lori, Clark and Rhonda touched lightly down on the roof of U&B Technologies. Clark located the alarm and the lock on the roof entrance to the stairs. A narrow beam of laser vision took care of the obstacles, and he glanced at his two companions.
They looked back at him, Lori a little nervously, but as determined as Rhonda and he. She clutched her portable computer, which he had fetched a short time ago from her Metropolis apartment. "All set," he said. "Everyone ready?"
Both women nodded.
"You remember your moves?"
Again, they nodded.
"Let's go, then. Rhonda, you're first. As soon as the fire alarm goes off, that's our signal."
"Got it." Rhonda eased open the door, and was suddenly gone. Clark lifted Lori in his arms, and they waited for a slow count of ten.
He was listening so closely that the shriek of the fire alarm made him jump, even though he was expecting it. Then he shifted into high speed.
In a few seconds, they reached the hall on the third floor of the five-story building where U&B Technology's security office was located. Down near the end of the hall, people milled about like a swarm of angry bees, and the smell of smoke was heavy in the air. Rhonda had apparently used her heat vision to ignite the contents of a trashcan, and the resulting furor was all they could have hoped.
Clark glanced quickly into the security office and the adjoining offices. All of them were empty. Everyone had gone to see the fire.
Next to the security office was a storeroom, a detail that the thorough x-ray vision-reconnoiter by Clark and Rhonda ten minutes before had established. Clark and Lori entered; Clark closed the door and switched on the lights.
"Okay," Lori whispered. "Find me the cable."
This was Clark's part. With his x-ray vision, he scanned the wall and located the network cable that ran to Security's computer. A quick and precise punch and he reached through the hole he had created to pull out a loop of the cable. "Here you go. It's all yours."
Lori nodded. Her previous nervousness appeared to desert her as she examined the cable with professional detachment, and Clark watched with respect as she went to work.
From her pocket, she produced what she had described briefly to him as a "vampire tap", a jury-rigged clip with a sharp, thin, needle-like protrusion extending from it. When she clamped it around the cable and tightened the lock screw, the protrusion penetrated the cable like the proverbial vampire and his hapless victim. That done, she hooked the clip to a short cable that extended from the back of her computer, and snapped the computer on. With quick, sure motions, she began to type.
"Gotcha," she breathed a few seconds later. "Three security badges coming up."
"I didn't know this kind of thing could be done," Clark observed, watching her pull up the relevant data.
Lori didn't lift her eyes from her job. "Well," she said, "my vampire tap is actually a hacker's adaptation of some really old technology. Nobody expects to find it around anymore, so they don't have any guards against it. Nora — she was my friend in high school — and a couple of her hacker buddies revived the idea and modified it to handle modern computer cables. I never expected to actually use it myself."
"Do I want to know what they used it for?" Clark asked.
"No," Lori said. "Here we go…"
One after another, the security badges, each bearing one of the photos she had scanned into the computer a short time earlier, emerged from the printer's slot. "Got the plastic stuff?"
"Yes." Clark produced the little plastic slabs he had acquired from the Daily Planet's security office during his quick trip back to Metropolis. He placed the forged badges inside, and sealed the plastic edges with his heat vision. "There we go. Instant badges."
He waited while Lori disconnected her computer and the vampire clip, and pushed the cable back into the wall. The hole in the plaster gaped conspicuously at them, and Clark shoved a heavy file cabinet in front of it. "There. That should be safe for awhile. Now, if Ronnie will just show up — "
Rhonda Klein materialized beside them as if by magic. "The fire is out and people are going back to their offices. I hope you're finished."
"All done," Lori said, sounding, Clark thought, very pleased with herself. "You're Veronica Brown, I'm Lauren Jones, and Clark is Charles Warren."
Clark examined his badge, admitting to himself that it looked exactly like all the other ones he had ever seen. Lori might be an amateur, but she had done an excellent job.
"I'm just as happy you decided to be a reporter, rather than a forger," he said, drily. "You'd give the Metro police force a headache for certain."
She turned pink and gave a slightly embarrassed laugh. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. Now, let's get going," he said. "We still have to find Mr. Gossett, and see what we can see."
Lori glanced warily at the two women passing in the hall, but neither looked at the three pseudo-employees who stood near the hall intersection, apparently engrossed in conversation.
"We've got fifteen minutes until closing," Clark said, glancing at the time display on his wrist talker. "I need to hear this guy speak."
"What's he doing?" Lori asked. She glanced at the door of Edwin Gossett's office, twenty feet away.
"The same thing he's been doing for the last ten minutes: staring at his computer screen."
Lori fidgeted. "If his phone would ring, we'd have it. Maybe one of us should call him."
"Wait," Clark said. "His phone is beeping. Shh."
Lori and Rhonda looked at each other. Clark's head was tilted in a pose Lori had seen before at the Planet, although she had not understood why. Rhonda's was tilted as well. The two superheroes were tuned into to Gossett's conversation in the other room. Lori tried to breathe quietly while they listened.
Suddenly, Clark relaxed. "It's him, all right," he said, ungrammatically. "It's the same voice I heard at the house, and later on the recording."
Lori released her breath. "What was the call about?"
"It was Blackwell," Clark said. "He was reporting that you and I seem to have disappeared. Gossett told them to keep looking. He wants to talk to you."
"They're still after us," Lori said. "Then why did they kidnap Brad and his family?"
"I think," Clark said, "that they may be trying a new technique."
"A trade?" Lori asked.
"Sounds like it," Rhonda said. "Do they know Superman's involved, Clark?"
He shook his head. "Not that I'm aware. They know Superwoman rescued us the other day. And Ray told Gossett that the night before they'd tried to get to Lori, but there was always some super hero hanging around. They can't be sure, though."
"Those could have been flukes," Rhonda pointed out. She looked at Lori. "We might be able to use this to find your brother, if you're willing."
Clark said nothing, though Lori could read the reluctance on his features. He clearly didn't like the idea of putting her at any risk at all, but wasn't saying so.
"What are you thinking?" she asked.
"Using you as bait," Rhonda said, bluntly. "With a twist, of course. Clark and I would be right there to bail you out immediately if you ran into trouble."
"We can talk about it back at the motel," Clark said. "In the meantime, we've got an opportunity here. It's closing time in a few minutes, and Mr. Gossett's computer is in there. It may have information on it that we can use. Can you tap into it as easily as you did Security's?"
"Sure," Lori said. "If I'm not interrupted."
"I'll see that you aren't," Clark said. "Rhonda, when he leaves, I want you to follow him."
"No problem," Rhonda said. "In the meantime, let's get out of sight. He'll be coming out in a minute. We don't know if he's seen any pictures of you or Lori, but we shouldn't take the risk."
An hour later at the Tumbleweed Motel, Lori sat cross-legged on Clark's bed, the computer before her, while Clark paced.
"What's taking her so long?" Clark asked for the fourth time in as many minutes.
"Gossett's probably stuck in traffic," Lori said. "I'm sure she'd call us if there was a problem. Clark, you're making me nervous."
"Sorry." He flopped into one of the room's armchairs, but within moments was drumming his fingers on the armrest. Lori glanced at him, then back at the computer.
"How are you doing?" Clark asked. "Did we get anything worthwhile?"
"Well, they've definitely got a second set of books," Lori said. "I took the opportunity to do some snooping around in the rest of their system while I had the chance. Here's the real list of their donations. Big chunks of money were given to Gaia over the last ten months."
"Let me see." Clark leaned over her shoulder. "Try matching it up with the ones you found in Gaia's records."
"Right here." Lori pulled up the requested file. "They match, all right," she said after a moment of comparisons. "I can't say I'm surprised at this point, but I still can't figure out why on Earth U&B Technologies would be helping Gaia destroy the colony project! I mean, it's obvious they're involved, but I can't see that a big corporation would have any interest in Gaia's ideology."
"Maybe there's another reason," Clark said. "They don't necessarily have to have anything in common."
"Except Edwin Gossett," Lori said. "What company got the Mayflower contract, anyway?"
"Oh, yeah." She bent over the computer again. "It doesn't seem to me that one company official could authorize all this, not even a senior vice president."
"I'm certain he couldn't," Clark said. "There's got to be something more behind it. Look around in there and see if they mention Lockmead."
"I am," she said, scanning the file as she spoke. "Here it is…huh! That's funny."
"Funny as in ha-ha, or funny as in strange?"
"Strange. They've got a ton of information on Lockmead — including a detailed list of its shareholders, and personal information on them, right down to a little kid who got a share from his grandma when he was born. Why would they have something like that?"
"Let me see." He leaned over her shoulder again. For an instant, his cheek brushed hers, and she told herself to relax. Just because his face was that close to hers was no reason to go all to pieces.
"There's a lot of confidential stuff on Lockmead in here." Clark scowled at the information displayed.
"Could they be trying to sabotage Lockmead?" Lori asked. "That might be why they're helping Gaia. I mean, if something happened to the Mayflower with no evidence of sabotage, it couldn't do Lockmead any good, could it?"
"Definitely not," Clark said. He straightened up. "Lockmead is EPRAD's biggest contractor. If the Mayflower failed for any reason, unless it was proven sabotage, it would discredit the company, probably the stocks would plunge…it could virtually wipe them out. It could make some kind of corporate takeover awfully easy, and eliminate U&B's biggest competitor."
"But what's Gossett's role in all this?"
"That's what we still have to find out," Clark said. "It's really funny that he's involved with both Gaia and U&B. I wonder if his bosses know it?"
Lori stared at him for a moment. "You know, this is a really weird idea, but what if…" She broke off, frowning.
"It makes a crazy kind of sense," she said, speaking more to herself than to him. "What if U&B got conned, too?"
"Well, maybe you can find something wrong with it," she said. "But Gaia is desperate to stop the Mayflower, right?"
"Right. They believe it's the beginning of the end of the world."
"They couldn't possibly stop it on their own. They don't have the resources," Lori said. "Then, all of a sudden, a few months ago, U&B Technologies started giving them all this funding and help."
"What if Gossett came up with this scheme and convinced his bosses to go along with it, so they'd help Gaia?"
"In other words, Gaia could be using U&B Technologies to sabotage the project and 'save the world'."
"Yeah," Lori said. "That might explain why Gossett is in the middle of everything."
"It could," Clark said, thoughtfully. "Of course, they've been caught in unethical business practices a couple of times. If we're right about this and they're helping Gaia in order to ruin Lockmead, they're just as culpable as Gaia."
"I'll say," Lori said.
"Anyway," Clark said, "whichever way you look at it, Gossett is in it up to his hairline. If we can prove he was involved in kidnapping your brother's family, I think the authorities might be willing to listen to us and launch an investigation."
"I hope so," Lori said. "We've only got three weeks." She glanced out the window at the sky. The haze of city lights effectively hid the stars, but a crescent moon hung just above the eastern horizon.
A familiar whoosh alerted them to Rhonda's arrival, and Clark was opening the door before she had time to knock.
"Gee, were you expecting me or something?" she asked, grinning slightly.
"What took so long?" Clark asked.
"Ground traffic," Rhonda said. She stepped inside and closed the door. With a quick spin, she was in her civvies once more. "I left him sitting in his living room, drinking a beer and watching the news." She glanced significantly at the computer. "Find anything?"
"Some," Lori said. "After Clark got the password, there wasn't any problem downloading it, but there's a lot to wade through."
Rhonda nodded. "There'll be time for that later," she said. "I've been thinking. Whatever's in that safe box must be hot stuff. They're sure determined to get hold of your package, but I'm inclined to think it doesn't involve the Mayflower."
"Yeah," Lori said. "If Brad had any proof, he'd have taken it to the authorities."
"I agree," Clark said. "I'm betting it's something personally incriminating to Mr. Gossett, since he's so determined to get it. Brad told you he hoped it would keep him out of trouble, didn't he?"
"It sounds to me as if he was trying to keep Gossett off his back. If Gossett knew he was looking for proof about U&B and Gaia — " Clark shrugged. "I think your brother was doing the best he could."
"Gossett probably gambled that the military would do exactly what they did when he disappeared," Rhonda said. "Deny that anything was wrong. You'll probably get a call before long, Lori, when they decide they can't find you physically, offering to trade Brad and his family for the evidence."
Lori swallowed and nodded. "You think they're still alive?" she asked.
Rhonda hesitated. "Probably," she said. "But you know Gossett has no intention of letting any of them, or you, live."
"I know," Lori said. She swallowed again. "You said you have an idea — using me for bait."
Rhonda nodded. "With a few safety precautions," she said, "such as the two of us hanging around close by."
Clark walked over and sat down on the bed beside Lori. "You don't have to do this," he pointed out. "We can think of something else."
"I know," Lori said. "But Ronnie's right. If we make the bait irresistible, they're more likely to walk into the trap."
Clark obviously didn't like where the discussion was going, but rather surprisingly said nothing.
"I also think," Rhonda said, "that the presence of a cop would add a certain something to the situation."
Clark raised an eyebrow at her. "You have a volunteer?" he inquired.
"You know I do," she said.
"How is Oliver these days?" Clark asked.
"He's doing fine," Rhonda said. She looked at Lori. "Oliver is an old friend of mine," she explained. "He's a police inspector at the 17th Precinct, and he owes me a number of favors."
"I take it you have a specific plan?" Clark asked.
"Of course," Rhonda said. "Lori has to make the first move, though."
"What do you want me to do?" Lori asked.
Rhonda glanced at Clark. "I like her," she said. "She's got guts."
"Too many," Clark murmured, but he didn't protest.
Rhonda smiled at Clark. "It's Karma, Clark, and you know you wouldn't have it any other way," she said.
Lori couldn't figure out what Rhonda meant, but Clark evidently understood, for he laughed softly and surrendered. "Okay, I give up, but we're going to stack the deck heavily in our favor," he said.
"Naturally," Rhonda said. "First, though, we're going to take Mr. Gossett off guard. Instead of waiting for him to call us, Lori's going to call him. I got his vid phone number."
Lori gulped and nodded. "Okay, but won't he worry about someone tapping into the call? I mean, I'd suspect that, in his place."
Rhonda shook her head. "He's an exec for a high-tech firm. They all have Spotters on their phones to let them know if a conversation is being monitored. You're going to set up a meeting. Now, here's what we'll do…"
"Hello," Edwin Gossett's voice said. Lori thought she would have recognized it even if she hadn't known who the man on the other end was. "This is Gossett."
Lori glanced nervously at Clark, who was sitting on the bed, and Rhonda, who stood halfway across the room, both well outside the pick-up for the vid phone. Rhonda gave her a thumbs-up gesture.
"Mr. Gossett," Lori said, summoning a calm, confident tone; four years in her high school drama club hadn't been wasted time after all. "This is Lori Lyons. I understand you're looking for me."
The silence that followed her announcement almost had a surprised quality, as if the man at the other end hadn't expected this development. The vid screen came on suddenly, and Lori saw Edwin Gossett's face for the first time. He was a thin little man, with the beginnings of a receding hairline, and a voice totally at odds with his appearance. "Yes, Ms. Lyons, we have."
"That's a coincidence," Lori said, "because I'm looking for you. I believe I have something you want."
"And what would that be, Ms. Lyons?"
"You know what it is." she said. "You have something I want as well. If you can convince me it's in good condition, I might be persuaded to trade."
"I think I can convince you of that." The man turned his head to examine something out of range of the vid pickup. "Can you convince me that what I want is in equally desirable shape?"
"You'll have to examine it yourself," Lori said. "I haven't opened it."
"You expect me to believe you found me on your own?" Gossett's eyebrows slid up incredulously, and in his voice was as close to a sneer as Lori had ever heard.
"I don't expect anything," Lori said. "I want my brother and his family back, and I know you have them. I know about your connection to Gaia's Children, and U&B Technology's covert donations to them. I also know about the plan to destroy the Mayflower, and a lot of other things as well. Now, do we deal, or do I take my information to the police?"
"Don't get snippy with me, young lady! You will speak to me with respect!"
Out of the corner of her eye, Lori caught a look at Clark's raised eyebrows and had to struggle to maintain a straight face, even over the anger that was seeping through her. The man definitely had a sense of his own importance. A potential weak spot.
"That's rich," she said, contemptuously. "A common kidnapper demanding respect. I called you first because I love my brother and his family, Gossett. You've got ten seconds; then I'm going to assume they're already dead and take what I know to the police."
Silence. Lori counted silently. "Okay, your choice."
"Wait!" Gossett said. "All right. Where are you?"
"I'm in Houston. That's all you need to know."
"Can we meet?"
"Only to trade," Lori said. "I have no more reason to trust you than you have to trust me. The package and my evidence, unduplicated, in exchange for my brother and his family. That's the deal. You can bring a technician along to verify that they haven't been duplicated."
"Hmmmph. You don't mince words, do you, young woman?"
"Not with you," Lori said, looking him straight in the eyes, and she could hear the anger coloring her own words. That should help to convince him that what she was saying was genuine. "Your people kidnapped me. If it hadn't been for Superwoman, Mr. Kent and I would be dead, so no, I don't mince words. Call me back when you have proof that my brother and his family are all right. We'll make the arrangements then. I'm transmitting a call-back authorization, now."
"Very well. I'll call you back with the meeting place."
She shut off the vid phone, and drew a deep breath.
"Brava!" Rhonda applauded. "Great performance!"
Clark nodded respectfully. "That was a very convincing act, Lori. I think he believed you."
"I hope so," Lori said. "I guess it helped that he made me angry."
"It's hard to be nervous when you're mad," Rhonda agreed. "I'll call Oliver back now. He's got the stuff we need."
It was an hour later that the vid phone beeped. When she answered, Gossett's voice emerged from the speaker.
"Ms. Lyons," he began, "I have someone who wishes to speak to you."
"Yes?" Lori said.
The vid screen came on. Brad's face appeared in the pickup.
Her brother looked somewhat the worse for wear. He had a bruise under one eye, another on his jaw, and a cut on his forehead. His expression was grim. "Lori?" he said.
"Brad! Are you and Sharon and the kids all right?"
"We haven't been hurt. Lori, you can't — "
A hand jerked him roughly out of the vid pickup. "Are you satisfied, Ms. Lyons?" Gossett asked.
"For now," Lori said. "If I don't see all four of them alive at the exchange point, you don't get your package. Do you understand?"
"That's understood. We will meet in half an hour in the new children's park on Porcupine Avenue. Do you know where that is?"
"I'll find it," Lori said.
"Excellent. There's a statue honoring Ultra Woman near the eastern border of the park…"
Lori switched off the vid phone and looked at her companions. "Well, it's set."
Clark nodded. "You realize that he has no intention of carrying through, don't you? He was lying through his teeth. He can't afford for your brother to go back and tell his story to the authorities. They'd investigate, proof or no proof, after this."
"I know," Lori said.
Rhonda nodded. "Of course he was, but it's the only way we're going to find them while they're still alive." She glanced at the time display on her wrist talker. "We have thirty minutes." She looked Lori over carefully. "Make sure that thing is turned off," she said. "They're bound to check you for a transmitter."
"It's off," Lori said. "Just try not to lose me, okay?"
"We'll definitely try." Clark's voice sounded grimmer than she thought he intended. "The thing is, these people have some pretty high tech gadgets at their beck and call. We want to be ready for any eventuality."
"Exactly," Rhonda said. She glanced at the time display on her wrist talker. "I better get going. Oliver and I have a few things to arrange."
"We'll see you at the rendezvous," Clark said.
When Rhonda had gone, Clark turned to Lori where she sat on the bed. "Lori, I still don't like this. Whatever way you stack it, it's still a risk."
"I know," she said. "It's a lot more risk than I want to take, believe me. But it's the only way we have to save Brad and the others, and the colony project. They'll never halt the launch just on someone's say so — not even Superman's. We need proof."
He sat down next to her. "I know. I'm not trying to argue with you. I learned not to do that…well, a while back."
"Oh." Lori was silent, trying to read the look on his face.
Clark took one of her hands gently in his and held it, brushing a thumb across the back. "Do you know," he said abruptly, "what you've done to my life, Lori Lyons?"
She didn't answer for a moment, then shook her head.
"I figured you didn't," he said. "One moment I knew exactly what I'd be doing the next day, the next week…and the next minute I heard you being mugged down there on the campus. I came down to help, and grabbed that guy…and then I saw you, and my whole world turned upside down."
"It did?" she whispered.
"Yeah. It happens to Kryptonians that way — in a split second. After that, things are never the same." He released her hand and stood up, beginning to pace. "There's a lot you don't know about me. But — after this is over…I'd like to try…well, being friends, maybe a date, if you're not against it. And, well, if things work out…"
"I'd like that very much," Lori said.
He stopped pacing and turned to look at her again. "Thank you," he said.
"Just thank you." He glanced at his wrist. "We better get going."
Flying through the faintly warm air of late evening, Lori found her mind reeling at what had just occurred. Clark…Superman…had all but told her he'd fallen in love with her. It was a heady sensation, and a little scary, but sneaking a glance at his face in the darkness, she had a feeling that she hadn't known since that last Christmas Eve when she still believed in Santa Claus — the breathless knowledge that something magical and mysterious was about to happen. When she looked back at him again, he smiled at her, and Lori felt her heart do a little skip.
Then they were over the park and Clark was bringing them down silently in the shadows, a short distance from the appointed meeting place. It was a little past nine-thirty; Lori would have expected the park to be deserted, but it wasn't. The baseball field some three hundred feet away was lighted, and there was a game going on between casually clad men and women. Here and there, in the dimness of the spreading lawn, couples sat on benches and spread-out blankets, children played hide and seek among the trees, and toward Porcupine Avenue, there was some kind of rally taking place in a lighted grassy area of the park. Lori glanced apprehensively at Clark.
He had spun into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and in the shadow he loomed over her, solid and reassuring.
"Ready?" he asked softly. She nodded, hoping he could see more than she did. Could Superman see in the dark? she wondered. He could see through walls, she knew; his night sight was almost certainly sharper than hers. And where was Rhonda and her friend Oliver, the police inspector? They must be out here somewhere.
Clark rested a hand lightly on her shoulder. "Be careful," he said.
He squeezed her shoulder lightly. "Okay, go."
She glanced at the glowing readout on her wrist talker; two minutes. She began to walk toward the larger than life-size statue that stood black against the sky, looking around for the other persons who were supposed to be here. Clark stood back, but the knowledge that he was there in the darkness behind her gave her more confidence than she might otherwise have had.
A nite-glo frisbee sailed past her and a young man plunged after it across her path. Lori flinched slightly as he came within inches of her in his rush for the spinning disk. Then she was directly beneath the statue.
The baseball game was letting out, and the players and spectators were dashing exuberantly across the park grounds, their shouts ringing through the night air of the park.
Time. She looked around. There was no sign of Brad or his family, no sign of anyone waiting for her, but figures were streaming past her, and chattering people surrounded her on all sides.
Members of the rally were suddenly present as well, men and women milling about with their signs under the statue of Ultra Woman. People were converging on the statue from all directions, and Lori felt herself being squashed from all sides as bodies hemmed her in. It wasn't even a surprise when she heard the explosion. A building across Porcupine Avenue erupted in flames, and a moment later a second followed it. Debris rained on the park, followed by choking fumes. People screamed, and the panicking crowd began to run in all directions. A hand pinned her wrists behind her, and an evil-smelling rag was clapped hard over her mouth. She tried to wrench free, but she had already gotten a lung full of the acrid substance that saturated the cloth. She felt herself being dragged across the grass, surrounded by the loud and frantic crowd of humanity, and after that, there was nothing.
Lori stirred feebly and tried to fight the waves of nausea that brought the taste of bile to her mouth. There were voices in the background, but she paid no attention to them. Gradually, after eons of time, the nausea retreated to bearable levels.
Something nudged her ungently in the back. Lori opened her eyes.
She was lying on a concrete floor, and from across the room two men she had never seen before in her life were watching her without interest. Another wave of nausea swept over her and she squeezed her eyes shut again. Then, a voice she found unpleasantly familiar said, "I thought you were coming around. Look at me, Ms. Lyons."
Slowly and painfully, Lori obeyed.
Edwin Gossett was looming over her, and the look on his face was a combination of satisfaction and annoyance.
"Well, Ms. Lyons," he said, "perhaps you'll have more respect for me now. Sit up."
Lori closed her eyes for a moment. "Would you lower your voice, please?" she requested.
Gossett's hand seized her arm and jerked her to a sitting position. The jolt of suddenly coming upright unbalanced the precarious control she had gained over her unruly stomach, and she began to gag. Gossett moved quickly back out of range.
When her stomach's revolt had ceased, he spoke again. "Ms. Lyons, I haven't a great deal of patience with fools who don't know their place." His voice, harsh with its nasal twang, grated on her ears. "You were to bring the package and documents. You don't have them."
Lori opened her eyes to glare up at him with weary misery. "Of course not. Do I look like a complete idiot? If you'd played straight with me, you'd have them by now."
"Frankly," Gossett said, "I didn't think you'd have the courage to show up, much less the wit to — what is the gambling term — 'hedge your bets' so cleverly. I admit, I underestimated you. Now, where are the package and the other documents?"
She mustn't show fear, Lori told herself. If Gossett thought she was afraid of him, she would lose a little of her edge. "My partner has them," she said.
"Ah, the estimable Mr. Kent; how could I have forgotten him," Gossett said, a note of sarcasm in his voice.
"You shouldn't," Lori said. Slowly, she pulled her feet under her and stood up, one hand on the wall for support. "What's the time?"
Gossett glanced at his wrist talker. "Ten thirty-three," he said, with exaggerated courtesy. "Do you have a prior engagement?"
"No. But if I don't show up by eleven, Clark will take the package and all the other evidence we've found to the police."
"That would be very unfortunate for you, Ms. Lyons."
"Why?" Lori said, bluntly. "You have no intention of letting any of us go, so why would it matter? How do I know they're still alive even now?"
Gossett eyed her thoughtfully. "There are many kinds of death. I can make yours easy, or very, very difficult. I must admit, the second option holds a certain attraction." He held up a small object. "We found your transmitter, by the way. Disguised as a class ring — very clever. Now, I want you to call your partner."
Lori had been aware of her missing wrist talker and the other items as well, so she showed no emotion at the revelation. "Not until I see that Brad and the others are still alive."
"Don't get above yourself, young woman. You are in no position to bargain."
Lori looked back at him without expression. It was amazing, she thought, where this calm came from. Faced with a critical situation, she was in control and thinking clearly. Her heart was racing, light and fast, and her breathing had quickened. Fight or flight. If she got out of this mess alive, she would no doubt go to pieces, but for now, she knew exactly what to do. The first thing was to assure herself of the location of Brad and his family. "Where are they? Are they still alive, or did you lie about that, too?"
Gossett slapped her hard, knocking her sideways into the wall. Lori saw stars and felt her knees give way. For a moment, the room's lights dimmed out around her.
As her surroundings swam slowly back into focus, she could hear the blood singing in her ears, and tasted it in her mouth. Through a grey haze, Gossett was smiling at her.
With one hand, he yanked her roughly back to her feet. "I want that package, girl! You will call Kent and tell him to bring it — "
Lori spat at him. It wasn't a conscious action; more instinct than anything else. Gossett started back with a cry of disgust on his lips. Quickly, he removed a handkerchief from a pocket and wiped the blood and saliva from his face. Lori fell back against the wall, fighting dizziness. With one hand, she wiped blood from her chin. Her lip was cut, her jaw hurt, and when she felt with her tongue, she realized one tooth was slightly loose as well.
Gossett seized her by the blouse and pulled her close to his face. "Call him!"
Lori drew a shaking breath, her mind still fixed doggedly on her goal. Her eyes wouldn't quite focus. "Not until I see Brad and his family." Her voice shook. "Your time's counting, Gossett."
Gossett pushed her back against the wall. "All right." Perhaps, Lori thought, dazed at his sudden capitulation, he believed it would make no difference. He gestured to one of the two muscular individuals silently watching the scene. The man turned, opened a door, and left the room. Lori wiped more blood from her mouth.
"Where are we?" she asked.
"In a secret location," Gossett said. "You can scream to your heart's content. No one will hear you."
The door through which Gossett's lackey had vanished opened again, and Brad, Sharon and the two children were herded into the room. The guard entered behind them and closed the door.
"Lori!" Brad started toward her, only to be pushed ungently back by the two men.
Lori looked at her brother. Brad had been subjected to rough treatment since she had seen him on the vid phone screen, a couple of hours before. His face had acquired more bruises and cuts, and Sharon had a black eye as well. The children, hiding behind their mother, appeared to be unhurt. Judging by the treatment she had received from Gossett in the last few minutes, Lori thought she could guess where the marks had come from.
"Now," Gossett said, bringing her back to the present. "You will make the call."
Lori nodded wordlessly and let him shove her roughly in the direction of a second door, in the wall on her left. Once through it, a steep flight of steps led upward. Lori grasped the railing, unwilling to trust her balance on the stairs. Gossett pushed her forward sharply with a blow from his open hand between her shoulder blades.
Lori gritted her teeth and set one foot on the stairs, then another and hauled herself upward, Gossett dogging her steps. Blood from her cut lip dripped on her blouse. Halfway up, she stopped to rest.
"Go on!" Gossett demanded. Lori wiped away a runnel of blood and sat down.
"I need to rest. Unless you want to carry me." Again, she scrubbed away a trickle of blood and wiped her hand across the front of her blouse.
"Get up!" Gossett snarled. "Now!"
Wearily, Lori pulled herself to her feet. Ten steps more. Slowly, she ascended the stairs, Gossett on her heels. The door at the top was locked, and the man behind her reached past her to unlock it. He pushed it open, and Lori found herself in a kitchen.
"There." He indicated the vid phone on the opposite wall.
Lori started for it; the scene was shimmering around the edges of her vision. Clark hadn't come; Gaia's Children had managed somehow to prevent him from tracing her to the hideout, but she was out of the basement, away from any possible shielding. Now was the time to use what Rhonda had given her. There wouldn't be another chance.
With a shaking hand, she wiped away the lessening trickle of blood, and scrubbed her reddened fingers across the front of her blouse. As she did so, she caught the third button down, the inactivated switch to the hypersonic signal that no one but the local dogs and the superheroes could hear, and pulled it free.
Outside, a dog howled, and a split second later the howl was joined by a chorus, as canines near and far picked up the sound. Gossett was no fool; in an instant, the man realized what she had done and his fist lashed out. Lori flung up her arms to protect her face with a muffled cry of protest. But the cry was drowned out in the double smash of glass as two bodies hurtled through the kitchen windows. Gossett's fist never reached its target, for an angry figure in red and blue sent him flying across the kitchen to crash headfirst into the stasis unit.
"Downstairs — " Lori began in a hoarse whisper.
"Stay here," Clark's voice said. Lori found herself reclining on a sofa, not even aware of how she had gotten there, while somewhere below her, muted crashes, thumps and alarmed cries told her that Clark and Rhonda were cleaning house.
"Lori?" Clark's voice seemed to be coming from a great distance. "Wake up. You mustn't go to sleep."
Her eyelids felt as if they were being pulled down with lead weights, but Lori forced them up, to find Clark's worried face close above hers.
"Clark?" she asked.
"The police are here, Lori." He glanced over his shoulder and back at her. "I'm going to fly you to the hospital in a few minutes. Try to stay awake."
She was careful not to move her head. "Is Brad all right?" Her lips were stiff and didn't want to cooperate.
Clark was holding a linen napkin he had obtained from somewhere, and now he gently pressed it to her lip. "Don't try to talk. You'll make your mouth bleed. Brad is all right. They're all all right, thanks to you." He turned his head. "Inspector Brent?"
A tall, slender man with dark brown hair moved into Lori's range of vision. "Superman. How is she?"
"I need to get her to the hospital. Do you think you can postpone the questions for later?"
The Inspector nodded. "No problem. Just explain to me how I always let myself get talked into these incredible situations."
"She does the same to me," Clark said, drily. "No willpower, that's all."
Lori blinked at the man. Maybe it was her blurry vision, but Inspector Brent had the same eyes as Clark and Rhonda. "Oliver?" she murmured.
"That's right," he said. "Superman is going to take you to the emergency room, Ms. Lyons. We'll talk later."
"All right," Lori said. She closed her eyes as Clark lifted her in his arms, and a moment later they were airborne. She put her head down on his shoulder and drifted off. It was over, at least for now.
"I really wish you'd stay tonight for observation," Clark said. He held Lori's arm as they exited the Emergency Room some five hours later. The ramp leading down to the stationary walk seemed more desirable than the stairs, especially since she had reluctantly admitted to some residual dizziness from her confrontation with Edwin Gossett.
"I'm fine." Lori's speech was a bit slurred as she spoke through swollen lips and a stiff, bruised jaw, as well as the fact that she had been warned not to stretch the newly sealed tissue of her lip when she spoke. "Why should I sleep in a noisy hospital, when I've got a perfectly good motel room, with a lot more privacy? I don't want anyone to see me looking like this."
"Like what?" Clark asked, genuinely puzzled.
"Like this — with a swollen lip and jaw, a black eye, and a big, nasty bruise on my chin. I look like I've been in the middle of a barroom brawl!"
"Lori." Clark stopped and turned to face her, placing both hands on her shoulders. "You're beautiful. You could never be anything else. A few cuts and bruises don't matter."
His pronouncement seemed to shock her into silence. Clark pressed his advantage. "Since we're going back to the motel, don't think for a moment that I'm going to leave you by yourself tonight. Someone has to be sure you can be waked up." He smiled at her surprised expression. "I'll behave myself, I promise, but we're not going to argue about it. Even if I have to sleep, floating."
She gave a one-sided smile, careful not to disturb the doctor's repairs. "I trust you."
"Good. Besides, tomorrow you and I have an invitation from your brother. I think he wants to spend some time with you, and be sure you're all right. He's going to give me an exclusive interview, too. He was too busy talking to the authorities tonight; they wouldn't let him have the time to come over to the hospital to see you, but he asked me to let you know what was happening."
"I figured it was something like that," Lori said. "At least I'll be able to ask him what's in that darned safe box."
Clark chuckled. "I asked him."
"What was it?"
"Pretty much what we thought — incriminating evidence against Gossett, but nothing to do with the Mayflower. Brad promised to tell us all about it tomorrow." He glanced at his wrist talker. "This afternoon, actually."
"Yeah. The sun will be up in a couple of hours." She glanced down at her wrist talker, which Clark had retrieved for her. The movement was apparently a little too quick, for she staggered slightly and clutched at his arm for balance.
Clark put an arm around her. "Easy there. There's no rush. I told Brad we'd be at their place after one. You can get in a good eight hours of rest."
"As if I'll be able to. I'm dying to hear the whole story."
Clark laughed softly. Maybe patience wasn't always one of Lori's strong points after all. "Actually, I overheard part of what Brad was telling the security people who were interviewing him. Do you think you could sleep if I give you some of the background now, and let him fill in the details later?"
He could see her eyes brighten at the prospect. "I think it would sure help!"
"Okay, then." He resumed his careful escort of her along the stationary sidewalk, headed for a concealed area of the hospital grounds. "I have to hand it to Brad. He's got a lot of courage. Apparently, Gossett's confidential secretary came to him with the information about what they were up to, but she didn't have any proof."
"Yeah. She'd known about his less-than-ethical business dealings for years, and never said anything, but this time was a bit different. Her grand-daughter is a colonist on the Mayflower."
"I guess that would make a difference," Lori said, thoughtfully.
"I guess so. Anyway, she was scared to death. She couldn't get any evidence to prove it, but she brought your brother information about some of the other criminal dealings Gossett had been involved in over the years, just to prove what kind of solid citizen he was. She was found dead in her home three days later, but with no evidence of foul play. That's when Brad started doing some investigating on his own, and before long that brought him to Gossett's attention. The rest, we pretty much know. I gave the investigators everything we had, too, by the way. It's already getting results."
"What happened?" Lori asked.
"Well, an hour ago, government agents swooped down on U&B Technologies and Gaia without any warning and confiscated their computers as well as a bunch of high tech gadgetry that they had no business having in their possession, and arrested a lot of high officials from both organizations. The last I heard, U&B executives were trying to explain the transfer of restricted technology to Gaia, and Gaia leaders were trying to explain the presence of schematics for a highly classified tactical weapons system in their computer — as well as their possession of a working model. It looks as if there are a lot of people in very hot water."
"How do you know that?"
Clark tapped his ear.
"And we've been promised the exclusive when the investigation is complete, since we were instrumental in the discovery of the evidence. The part we already know about is on John's desk under the Kent and Lyons byline." He stepped off the sidewalk, and drew her around the corner into the shadows. A quick spin, and Superman picked her up with great care for her bruises and sore spots. "Congratulations on your first major scoop, Ms. Lyons."
"Thanks." Lori relaxed in his arms, as he lifted off without a jar. They glided silently up and over the city. Her face was close to his, and he could feel her breath warm on his cheek.
"You're welcome." His voice was soft. "Lori, I'm so sorry I couldn't get to you sooner. When I saw what he'd done to you…well, Superman came awfully close to forgetting his ethics."
"You wouldn't do that. That's not the sort of guy you are." She put a hand on his cheek. "You mustn't blame yourself. Gossett enjoyed hitting me — that's the kind of person he is. I could tell."
"I know," Clark said. "Oliver told me the guy has a record of violence, including spousal abuse. He's been arrested twice for it, but the cases were plea-bargained down to misdemeanors. I don't think he's going to wiggle out of federal charges so easily, though."
"I hope not."
"He won't." Clark tightened his arms around her very slightly, holding her warmly. "Lori — "
"Gossett nearly took you away from me forever," he said, quietly. "It scared me more than anything has in a long time. I don't want to lose you…ever. Whether it's just as a friend, or as something more someday, I want you around. Can you believe that?"
"Yes," she said. "I think I do. I feel the same."
They flew in companionable silence through the night air toward the Tumbleweed Motel. Things had a long way to go, Clark knew. There was the matter of his age to be resolved, and exactly the kind of relationship they could have was still to be determined, but as he held her securely in his arms, he remembered what he had told Lois, all those years ago.
It wasn't the years that mattered, it was the moments as they lived them. And for right now, for this moment, he was happy.
To be continued, in the next story.
Ready for the next story in this series? Read Home III: Memories. Need the previous story? Read Home.
Stories in Nan Smith's "Home" series, in order: Home, Home II: Beginnings, Home III: Memories, Home IV: Honeymoon, Home 4a: A Valentine Vignette, Home: A Christmas story, Home: On the Fourth Day of Christmas, Home: New Year's Wishes, Home V: Obsession, Home: Circle of Fate, Home: Vendetta, Home: Family Party, Home: An Evening to Remember, and Home: Murder by Earthlight