By Jon Wolff <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: November 2001
Summary: Far into the future, Elizabeth Ellington is involved in a car accident while trying to discover the whereabouts of a "secret Superman." After being rescued by a lonely rancher, who's still recovering from the death of his wife years ago, she ends up finding out more than she expected…
DEDICATION: This story is dedicated to S.A., who was a special friend, just when I needed one, and who taught me that it's possible to open your heart once again.
Thanks go to Sherry, who did a lot of the edits.
*Lonely is the man, who walks alone
And lonely is the man, who has no home
And lonely, lonely, lonely am I
I am so lonely, wish I could die
I asked the Lord up above
What is this thing, mortals call love
And why can't I have one of my own
I am so lonely, so all alone*
LONELY by Sharon Sheeley,
Recorded 1958 by Eddie Cochran
Somewhere in the Montana wilderness.
Liz cursed the rain and the wind for the thousandth time that evening. Visibility was now almost non-existent, with the hard rain swallowing the light from the headlights inches from her ground vehicle. Even at the slow speed she was driving, she was fighting hard against the buffering wind to keep the vehicle steady on the road. Having been raised exclusively on hover vehicles, she was having great difficulty controlling the ancient wheeled vehicle.
She could have waited. She could have had a little patience and waited out the storm. Waited for Monday when a hover vehicle would have been ready. But no, she had to go now. In what had to be the worst rain in Montana since heaven's knows when, in a vehicle that her grandfather would have considered ancient.
"Why?" she asked herself out loud, as if voicing the question would spark a response from the Cosmos. Of course, she already knew the answer. She was obsessed. Her family was right, she had finally gone over the edge. She would just have to admit to herself that this time she had gone too far and needed to stop her insane behavior. Besides what if he was real? What would she do if she found him … confront him? If he was real, why would he even want to talk to her?
Now that she had come to her senses, she checked the charge meter on the dashboard. Hmm… two hours of charge left. 'Let me see, it took me about 100 minutes to get here, so I could go another 10 minutes and just make it back.. That's it, ten more minutes.' Her thinking process came to a screeching halt as she digested her reasoning. 'No no no no , I'm doing it again. I am *not* going any further. I am turning around right now and heading back. I will wait until Monday and get a proper vehicle with plenty of supplies… if I do this at all. I'm not even sure why I'm so obsessed with this… with him. He's probably just some invention of my overactive imagination, just like my mom said. I just got too involved in the research for my book. That's it. Too involved. Just like I did with those poor children in Peru. Speaking of which, I should check in on them when I get a chance. I did promise Lisa an American doll next time I was down there. Of course I think I promised toys to about 30 kids. Boy, my accountant is going to hate me next month…'
She stopped her thoughts just long enough to wonder how she ended up thinking of her accountant. 'I'm really losing it now. Definitely time to turn around.'
Liz slowed the vehicle and brought it to a stop. Carefully, she started negotiating a 3 point turn on the muddy country road. Just as she stopped pulling backwards, she felt a tremor shake the vehicle.
"What the …," but she never got to finish her comment. The vehicle slid backwards as the shoulder of the road, weakened by the rain, collapsed under the vehicle's weight. Liz hung onto the steering wheel desperately, praying for the vehicle to stop its descent. As quickly as it started, the vehicle's slide halted, apparently reaching the bottom of the embankment. Liz slowly exhaled the breath she didn't even realize she was holding.
"That was fun," she said, still breathing hard. She closed her eyes and purposely willed herself to calm down. After a minute she was able to open her eyes again. Reaching over to the gear shift on the steering wheel column, she shifted into the lowest possible gear. She depressed the accelerator only to be rewarded by the sound of spinning wheels. Liz briefly entertained the notion of using a rocking motion to get the vehicle moving again, but quickly dispensed with the idea for fear of sliding even further backwards.
"Think, think, think." Realizing how she sounded to herself, she thought, 'Oh no, now I sound like Pooh bear.' She flipped on the cabin light so she could get a better look inside. Liz saw that her vehicle had come to a stop at an upward incline. Still thinking about what she should do, a sound invaded her consciousness. A sound like something leaking from behind her. She turned around in her seat to see water filling the back of the vehicle and rapidly making its way forward.
'OK, now it's time to officially panic.' She grabbed her fanny pack, attached it to herself, and then retrieved her flashlight that was laying on the floor. She tried pushing open her door but found it blocked by mud as the vehicle was slowly being sucked down into the rain soaked ground. Thinking quickly, she rolled down the window and climbed out. With the rain assaulting her as she pulled herself onto the roof, she realized that the rate of her sinking was beginning to accelerate, and she knew she had to act quickly. Turning on her flashlight, she picked the best direction to leap to safety and get away from the doomed vehicle. Stowing the flashlight in her belt, she paused for a moment to gather her strength and leapt from the roof of the car, hoping to clear the mud trap that nature had set for her.
Unfortunately for her, no human would have been able to clear the mud pit in which she now found herself. After landing in the watery mud, she tried swimming to move back toward the road, but the mud was too heavy to effectively swim through. She cried out in frustration, knowing now that her obsession had probably gotten her killed. Strangely, she thought that at least dead, she would not have to listen to her mother tell her 'I told you so' for the next decade. Not one to give up, Liz continued to struggle, trying to claw her way to safety. Suddenly she realized that mud was entering her mouth and that she was sinking below the surface. The hopelessness of her situation caused her to mentally slump. As she started to lose consciousness, she felt like she was floating. Funny, she read somewhere that drowning victims started to feel euphoric at the end. Must be the lack of oxygen. 'I should research that someday. Yeah… that's what I'll do. Right after my nap. Wish I had my Pooh bear…'
The first things Liz noticed were swirling colors and some kind of smell. The colors she didn't like, but the smell — no, the smells — they were good. Yes, very good. 'This is not bad. I thought dying would be worse. I guess heaven smells good. Funny, heaven smells like breakfast. Hmmm. Wait, why is it that I'm in heaven and it feels like someone is doing a Flamenco dance on my head? I need to ask God about that.'
'Well to open my eyes or not open my eyes? On one hand, opening my eyes might make my head feel worse. On the other hand, there are all these colors, truthfully tacky colors, with my eyes closed. So opening my eyes can't be any worse.'
Slowly, Liz opened one eye and immediately a moan issued from her lips. "Oh lord, my head hurts." Coming to a semblance of consciousness, Liz took stock of her surroundings. She was lying in a cozy looking bed with a quilt covering her body. The quilt looked very old and worn to a most comfortable level. The room she was in seemed to be a small bedroom in a dwelling done in the style of an old country farmhouse. Wood furnishings were everywhere and the walls were done in some kind of natural wood tone. 'Strange waiting room for heaven,' she thought. She tried sitting up a little, which elicited another moan from her. It was then that she discovered that underneath the quilt, she was dressed only in her undergarments. The same ones she was wearing when she "died". They were dry, but stained with what appeared to be the remnants of dried mud. The realization came to her that she was, in fact, still alive and currently in the bedroom of a strange house. She didn't know whether to be relieved or worried at this point.
The door of her bedroom started to open. A tentative voice on the other side of the door inquired, "Miss Ellington?"
"Yes," her voice came out in a rasp, barely a whisper.
"I'm coming in with something for you to drink and eat," said the voice as the door opened all the way. In the dim light she could see a man carrying a tray of food. A sweatshirt was draped over one of his arms. He set the tray down on the desk next to the bed and turned to face her. "Since you still seem a little weak, I'm going to put this sweatshirt over your head and see if you can finish pulling it down. I'll hold the quilt up so you're covered while you are pulling the shirt down the rest of the way."
"Sure," she said weakly. He bent over to place the shirt on her head. Then he grabbed the top edge of the quilt and held it up so that his view of her was obscured. Slowly she pulled the shirt down the rest of the way. It was big enough that it would reach down to the middle of her thigh. "Done," she announced.
Letting the quilt down, he walked over to the window and cracked open the blinds a little to allow the daylight to spill into the room. With the room now brighter, she could take in the stranger who had entered the room. He was a little on the tall side, but not too tall. A beard adorned his face, its black color peppered with a few white hairs. The hair on his head matched his beard, and was long enough to be drawn into a ponytail that reached his shoulder blades. Even through the casual, loose fitting clothes he wore, she could tell that he was in good shape. Of course if he lived out here, he was probably used to physical labor. She couldn't quite discern his age. He was looking at her with a look of concern and something else she couldn't quite place. She followed him with her eyes as he went to the closet to retrieve some extra pillows. As he approached her, she started to study his face. There was something about him. His eyes. They seemed to hold a mixture of things: concern, kindness, wisdom, and … weariness. For some reason, this man was weary, like someone on a long journey who doesn't see the end of the road.
As he reached her, he held up the pillows and said, "I'm going to help you sit up and put these behind you so you can eat and drink something. You need to get your strength back. You don't have any injuries and nothing is broken. I just think you wore yourself out trying to get out of that mud pit."
He placed his hand on her back and assisted her to an upright position and placed the pillows between her back and the headboard. Retrieving the tray, he placed it in front of her to reveal what was obviously the source of the smells she'd detected before. An omelet of some kind was on the plate along with some buttered toast and a cup of what had to be tea, with containers of sugar and milk on one side of the tea. A glass of orange juice was set on the other side of the tea.
Finally her mind had awakened enough to form some intelligent conversation. "So am I to assume that you were the one who rescued me ? You know, at first I thought it strange that the gates of heaven took the form of a farmhouse. Then I started to worry if that thing that mothers keep telling you about having clean underwear in case you're in an accident was true." As she stared at her host with a slightly blank expression she thought, 'O.K., so maybe "intelligent" conversation was stretching it a bit.'
"Hmm, maybe you did hit your head last night," he muttered with a slight twinkle in his eyes. Tearing his eyes away from hers he looked down at the tray. "Sorry. Why don't you try the tea first, it might clear your head a little?"
She gave him a slightly bemused look and picked up the tea with a trembling hand. Just as she thought she might drop the cup, a large warm hand encased hers. "Let me help you,… if you don't mind?" he said. Liz shook her head and let him help her get a sip of the tea. It was very good and warmed her on the way down. Soon he was helping her get bigger and bigger sips of tea. He was right; her head did start to clear a little more. His hand felt strange on hers. Not bad strange, not weird, but different. She couldn't quite categorize it. But whatever it was, it wasn't bad. Soon the tea was finished and he took the cup from her, replacing it on the tray.
"That was wonderful tea," Liz stated. "Thank you."
"Anytime," he said as he smiled a bit more.
'He should do that more,' she thought as she looked at his smile. After a couple of seconds she shook herself mentally and looked down at the food on her plate. Liz picked up her fork, now feeling strong enough to try her omelet. 'This is fantastic,' she thought as she took her first bite. 'He rescues me and can cook. It'd be a shame if he was a serial killer or something like that.' Before she knew it, the omelet, toast, and juice were gone. She looked up to see a slightly amused looked on the face of her host. She was still struck by how hard it was to discern his age.
"I have to guess that you either liked the food or you haven't eaten in so long that it didn't matter."
"Both I guess," Liz answered shyly. Then suddenly remembering her situation Liz asked, "I suppose it would be too much to hope that there was a female visiting this household who was responsible for getting me into this bed with nothing on but my undergarments?"
Her host looked slightly embarrassed as he answered. "No, sorry. But I had to get you out of your wet clothes. I was able to dry your, umm… under things without removing them by using a hair dryer. But when you get a chance, you might want me to wash what you have on to get the rest of the mud off." After thinking for a moment he looked at her and asked "Why did you assume that there were no females in this household?"
Reflecting for a moment, Liz answered, "I don't know. It just seemed like you are alone out here."
A slightly sad expression crossed his face for a moment. "Well you're right, I do live here alone. That is if you don't count my horses and chickens." A small smile came back slowly to his face. "So what's a city slicker from Los Angeles doing on a deserted dirt road in the middle of Montana, during the worst rainstorm in 10 years? There certainly weren't any campgrounds where you were heading."
"Exactly how do you know where I'm from, or for that matter my name?" she asked suspiciously. The comfortable feeling she had a moment ago was dissipating and a little fear started to develop. She started evaluating her escape options as he moved back to the desk in the room. Picking up something from the desk, he started to read: "Elizabeth Ellington, 3492 West 32nd Street, Los Angeles, California. Drivers license number W0497836. I found this is your fanny pack. Thought I could at least find out your name — it's better than saying 'Hey, you'. "
"I see," she replied slowly, her eyes still narrowed slightly in suspicion.
"Listen, I am not an axe murderer, a rapist, or an escaped mental patient. I'm just a plain 'ole rancher who happened upon you when looking for a stray horse. So why don't you rest some more and when you have the energy, get out of bed. There is a selection of my smallest sweat clothes in the drawer over there if you want to change out of your … under things. I already washed the clothes you were wearing and they're hanging in the closet. If you need anything, just holler. If I don't answer, I might be outside doing chores."
Liz relaxed again. "Sorry, just my automatic defense system going up again. Thank you for everything. I think a little sleep is just what I need right now." After thinking a moment she asked, "Oh by the way, how long was I out? Wasn't it hard to get me out of the mud? The vehicle is completely gone isn't it? … Oh, and did you find my phone?"
"Let me see, I found you about 8:30 last night and it's about 11:00 a.m. now, so about 14 hours. And — a little, yes, and yes but its not working."
"Oh O.K.," she replied not realizing the rapid fire rate of her questions, or the ease with which her host was able to keep up with her. "Then I need to use your phone later so I can call my um,… hmmm. I guess no one knows I'm out here anyway. Except for the rental place. I guess I better let them know that their vehicle decided to take a mud bath."
"Just sleep. I'll take care of it. There's only one person within 500 miles who would still have a vehicle like that to rent to anyone. Of course, I think I'll have to yell at Jeb a little bit for renting his SUV to someone like you."
"What to you mean someone like me?" she asked indignantly. "Don't think I can handle a, what do you call it, 'SUV'? I happen to have handled many… things like that, plenty of times."
"I'm sure you have, I didn't mean to offend your sense of capability. I only meant that your license didn't have a "wheeled vehicle" code on it. It's rare to find someone who has practice operating a vehicle that actually touches the ground."
"Now why don't you get some rest and then you can tell me what you were doing out here. That is, if you want to talk about it." He then helped her lay back down, removing the extra pillows from behind her.
She did feel tired and a little more sleep would be wonderful right now. As she started to close her eyes, she thought that the least she could do was to answer his question. "Actually there are a lot of reasons I'm out here. But the main reason is I'm trying to find someone. If I can find this person, it would help solve a number a things." Her voice was becoming softer as the quilt's magic was slowly lulling her into sleep. "If I can find him, I could finish my book. It would also prove to a number of people that I am not crazy. And he could help me,… well actually the world. I've recently uncovered evidence that an ancient evil is reasserting itself in the world and I need him to help me. He would have the ability to verify my evidence. He would know if I'm right or just being misled." It was getting harder and harder to talk but she couldn't stop now. It seemed strange that she was telling him all this after knowing him for only 30 minutes, but somehow it felt natural. 'Funny,' she thought, 'he didn't even tell me his name.'
"Who are you looking for," Liz heard. Her eyes were already closed.
Sleepily she continued, "Someone who may not exist. But if I am right, he may be my only hope of exposing these people." She paused again. "Sometimes I think that he's just a dream. Sometimes, I just don't know…"
"The last descendant of Clark Kent. I'm looking for the last Superman." With that Liz drifted off into sleep.
Slowly, Liz began to wake up again. For the second time that day she had to reorient herself to her surroundings. Memories and images were coming back to her and began to jumble around in her head: mud, quilts, eggs, and a bearded man. As she became completely awake she remembered where she was and how she had gotten there.
Clothes, she needed her clothes. Liz tried to decide if she had the energy to get out of her bed. She could swear that the quilt covering her body was somehow draining away all of her motivation through some magical power. 'Alright now, I can do this.' Carefully, she attempted to sit up in her bed. The weakness she had experienced the previous time she awoke had lessened considerably, and she was able to get herself into a sitting position. 'Well another astounding accomplishment for Dr. Elizabeth Ellington.' Her eyes opened fully now, she again examined her room. 'Not bad for the middle of nowhere.' That thought made her wonder exactly where she was. She knew that the area she was driving in had no towns or communities within a couple hundred miles. Her rancher must have been searching for that horse pretty far off the beaten track. She made a mental note to thank that horse personally and to buy it a bunch of carrots, or a pound of sugar cubes, or whatever was an acceptable equine thank you gift these days.
'Time now for the real challenge — swinging my feet onto the floor.' Liz mentally did a mock countdown. When she hit zero, she noticed that her feet were still under the quilt. 'I knew it. It's really a magic quilt and it's going to hold me captive until its bearded master commands it to release me.'
Questioning once again whether or not any shred of sanity remained within her, Liz grabbed a handful of quilt and threw it off her body. "Ha, take that!"
'Hmmm… Good thing my host isn't here to watch this or he'd probably be calling the paddy wagon to come and get me,' she mused. Deciding she had enough energy to stand now, she swung her feet over the edge of the bed and placed them on the floor. Stretching out her hand to the desk by her bed, she was able to pull herself to an erect, albeit wobbly, position.
She then remembered the state of the clothes she was wearing… well what she was left wearing of her clothes. She recalled the rancher's offer of sweat clothes in the dresser. Making her way there she opened the top draw to find a couple of pairs of sweatpants and sweatshirts. She chose a set and changed into them after removing her underwear. Chuckling to herself, she recalled how embarrassed the rancher had looked when he told her that he had removed her clothes. It seemed quaint somehow. People rarely made such a big deal about their state of dress or undress these days. Especially when it was clearly necessary. Well she knew that 'country folks' tended to be a little more traditional still in some aspects of life. She thought of the amount of clothing she was expected to wear when she lived with the Peruvian natives. Still, he didn't strike her as a … What was that old term ? Oh yes, redneck. She wondered about that strange colloquialism, which she knew to be more than a couple of hundred years old. Her fields of anthropology and archeology had allowed her to accumulate an odd collection of facts over the years. 'Hmmm… Maybe the people in the country areas back then didn't believe in sunbathing with their shirts off. Something to look into later, along with that oxygen depravation thing.'
'Oxygen depravation? Where the heck did that come from?'
She then noticed her reflection in the mirror above the dresser. 'Yikes, good thing my prom date isn't picking me up today.' She had really never paid much attention to her looks before. She realized that by normal standards, some would consider her nice looking. People often commented on her green eyes when they first met her. She often wondered why she was the only one in her family with green eyes.
All of her makeup was gone of course, but then again, she was never one for wearing a lot of makeup. 'I must look like hell to my host right now. Wouldn't mind a little makeup to cover those bags under my eyes.'
Looking closer, she realized that her face had been cleaned up. Mr. Rancher must have done that before putting her to bed. Thinking back to how he had helped her with the tea earlier, she thought that it might have been nice to feel his gentle hands cleaning her face. 'Too bad I can't remember that,' she reflected. The thought surprised her. 'I really must be wiped out from last night.' She backed up to take in more of herself in the mirror.
Being an active person, she had kept herself in pretty good shape. She had to be in shape to go to the places she been, and do the things she had done for the past seven years. Her dark hair was fashioned in a way which also bespoke of her active lifestyle. The short cut which framed her face required little in the way of maintenance, and did not get in the way when performing strenuous activity. Of course, her fellow academics at the university scoffed at her 'strenuous activities', often comparing her, in sarcastic tones, to some old movie character from the twentieth century. 'Who was that again? Something Smith or Jones' — she couldn't remember. But damn it, she didn't care what they said. Her methods were the only way she knew how to get the real information she needed to write her books. Well they could scoff all they want, but she was the one, at the "mere" age of 30, who had the most published work in her field. So to heck with them all.
She suddenly wondered how looking at her reflection had led her to damning her colleagues at the University. 'Why was I thinking about how I look? Or for that matter wondering about how Mr. Rancher sees me?' Granted, she had not had what was considered an active social life since she … since she … well she had never had a very active social life. It's not as if she had never been approached by members of the opposite sex before. She had even taken a few men up on their offers to wine and dine her. But she never found anyone who was worth more than a passing interest. 'You'd think in this "enlightened" age there would be more interesting men to have a relationship with.' Truthfully, most men she had dated had been more than a little intimated by her after a date or two.
"I am not too intense, I just really care about what I do!" she suddenly voiced, — defending herself to some past men she had dated. Realizing that she just said the last thought out loud, she covered her mouth with her hand. Her eyes moved back to the reflection of herself in the mirror. 'So why am I even thinking about all of this now?' She then examined the sweats she had put on. Even though she was slightly taller than average for a woman, the rancher's "smallest" sweats seem to engulf her. 'Ah yes, very chic', she thought to herself. A grumbling noise from her stomach interrupted her scrutiny and informed her that food was again required.
She grabbed her dirty clothes and made her way out of the room. Looking both ways up and down the hallway, she chose the path which offered the most light. After a few steps the hallway opened up to a large sunken living room. Like the bedroom she had just left, this room had a homey, country feel about it. Two sides of the room had no walls except at one corner. There, a free standing brick wall, about four feet wide, reached from the ceiling to the floor. At the bottom of the wall was a small brick platform which housed a free standing metal fireplace. A small wood fire was burning, warming the entire room. She could see that behind the free standing wall the hallway lead to the entrance of a large kitchen.
On the other side of the living room was a formal dining room. Actually, more like casual dining room she observed. The table and the chairs were all made of natural wood, rare these days. They looked well used, but it was obvious that they had received a fresh sanding and varnishing recently. Multiple small nicks and cuts were carefully sanded smooth and filled in with varnish. The third side of the living room was all glass, with a set of sliding doors to allow exit and entry into the house. Sunlight streamed in through the glass wall making the house seem very bright and cheery. Now that she thought about it, the whole house, even the hallway, seemed bathed in sunlight. Looking up, she observed that multiple skylights were built into the ceiling, allowing the sunlight to illuminate the entire house.
Making her way to the kitchen entrance, she found that the kitchen was separated from the rest of the house by a saloon style swinging door. On the door she found a note addressed to her:
Dear Miss Ellington,
Since you made it this far, I assume you now have enough energy to move about on your own. If you wish to take a bath or shower, just go to the bathroom, which is directly across the hall from your room. I placed fresh towels, soap, and a new toothbrush in there for you. Feel free to use anything you need. If you go into the kitchen you will find a laundry room, where you can wash the rest of your clothes while you are bathing. If you want, go to the back patio door and shout "Hello" so I know that you're awake. I'll come in and start to fix supper for us. (Don't worry, voices really carry out here. You're the only other human for 200 miles, so I'll know that it's you.)
If you need an immediate snack, feel free to raid my fridge in the kitchen. The bread box is on the counter by the sink.
'Well for a serial killer he certainly is very polite and considerate. O.K., so he's not a serial killer, I'll give him that.' She then scowled slightly in thought. 'No signature. I guess I still have to refer to him as Mr. Rancher for now. And what the hell is a "fridge" and why would I want to raid it?'
Shrugging her shoulders, she grabbed the note and pushed her way through the doors. True to the message in the note, she noticed a small laundry room to the right of the kitchen entrance. Entering the laundry room, she loaded her underwear, and the sweatshirt she had slept in, into the wash/dry unit. It was a fairly standard, if somewhat dated, sonic unit so she had no trouble setting the controls to clean and dry her clothes. Reentering the kitchen, she was keen on discovering exactly what a "fridge" was.
Looking around the kitchen, she spied a large box with a lower and an upper door. The upper door was significantly smaller than the lower door and the box emitted a low-level hum. Moving to the box, she grabbed the lower door handle and gently pulled it open. Inside the box was a variety of foods and drink in containers, and the entire interior of the box was cooled to a very low temperature.
Her eyes widened as she suddenly realized what this was. "I don't believe it. A real refrigerator." She stared at it for a moment, and several mental clicks later said, "Fridge, duh. Some archeologist I am."
She never really had seen one like this before, except in pictures. Refrigeration was so inefficient since the invention of the food stasis unit 70 years ago. No one, not even in the poorest parts of the world, bothered using the refrigeration process anymore. It used 4 times the power and was only effective over short periods of time. She examined the refrigerator more closely. As old as it should be, it looked very well cared for, no more than 5 to 6 years old at the most. Strange. Very strange.
Another rumble from her stomach reminded her that sustenance was more important at the moment than the contemplation of antiquated technology. Grabbing what look like a package of cold cut style ham and the bottle of mustard, she made her way to the bread box. Opening the bread box, she found some dark colored bread. She brought it close to her nose and inhaled. It smelled wonderful. She was sure that it was homemade. Grabbing a couple of slices of the bread, she made herself a sandwich. After replacing the mustard and remaining ham in the "fridge" (the word was starting the grow on her) she leaned against the counter. Staring off into infinity, she slowly ate her sandwich.
Something else was nagging at the back of her mind about the house. Nothing sinister, just something missing — or maybe out of place (other than a "fridge"). She walked out of the kitchen and reentered the living room. She examined the room to see if she could find what was bothering her. It looked normal enough, if a little quaint (there was that word again). She scrunched her face in concentration and tried to see what was so different about this house.
'Let me see. He has a couch, a couple of chairs, a real fireplace (unusual but not odd), and light switches. Hmmm. Light switches.' Suddenly a large click resounded in her brain. 'Light switches. That's all that's here. No other technology. No automated lighting systems. No video screens. No music systems. No computer terminal. I don't even see a telephone anywhere. I'm amazed he has electric lights.' Many of the minor conveniences that she took for granted in the modern American home were nonexistent in this house. Verrrry strange. Maybe he was a member of one of those back-to-nature groups that swears off technology. But no, he didn't seem to give up all conveniences, he just didn't have what was considered basic modern technology. And the house didn't speak of someone who was poor either. Her natural curiosity and research instincts were now in full gear. She needed to find out everything about him.
"You know, you're getting crumbs on my floor."
"Yeow," she yelled as she jumped, what she thought to be, nearly ten feet in the air. With her heart pounding in her chest, she turned to face the voice that had nearly killed her. "What are you trying to do, kill me with a heart attack? Damnation, where did you come from?"
Smirking slightly he replied, "I think I actually live here, if you remember. I was just coming in to check on you." Then after a pause he said, "I see you found my note."
"Oh well … yes I did. I, um, I'm sorry about the crumbs. I'll just go and …" She waved her free hand vaguely in the direction of the kitchen.
He shook his head. "That's alright, I was just kidding. You can finish your sandwich on the couch if you want, it's probably more comfortable than the kitchen table."
Uncertain what course of action to take, she simply stared at him. When he walked in on her like that, she felt like she had been caught red-handed contemplating the investigation of his life. Which would be silly, of course, since he couldn't read thoughts. At least she hoped not. So, while deciding what to do next, her body continued to perform the last active command that had been issued from her brain: 'Stare at him.'
After a few seconds, she heard him say, "Is there something wrong? Are you O.K.?"
Snapped out of her reverie, she shook her head. "No! I mean yes, I'm fine. I was just surprised by you, that's all. I didn't hear you come in. So sure, if you don't mind, I'll just sit on couch and finish this." She emphasized the phrase "finish this" by waving the sandwich back and forth in front of her (which had the unfortunate effect of launching several small crumbs of bread and ham in random directions). She then moved to the couch and plopped herself down, and took a large bite of her sandwich. Chewing it perhaps a little bit faster than normal, she continued to look at her host with a wide eyed expression.
Her host opened his mouth, about to say something. Then he closed it with a slightly confused look on his face. Recovering he said, "Then I guess I'll go outside and finish my chores," as he vaguely pointed toward the outside of the house. "It's 3 o'clock now, how about supper at 5?"
Getting a nod of affirmation from her, he continued. "Well, that should give you enough time to shower if you want. There's plenty of hot water. I know when I'm sore and tired, a nice hot shower always makes me feel better."
He walked across the living room and exited through the sliding glass doors. Left to herself, her brain started to process her latest encounter with her host. Her mind had stored the images of him from when she had been staring. She closed her eyes and studied the images. He would be, what most people would consider, handsome. His expression was often somber, but for short moments it would light up, bespeaking of an inbred joy in living. But from what she could tell, something had taken that joy away. She suddenly felt the need to help him get some of it back. 'Must be my maternal instincts kicking in,' she thought.
'My brain is starting to hurt from all this thinking. That shower is just what the doctor ordered.' Opening her eyes, she was surprised to learn that her sandwich was gone.
She made her way to the bathroom and found all of the supplies promised in the note. The shower unit was elegant, with brass fittings and old style handles. Looking for a minute, she couldn't find any of the digital controls or even an "on/off" switch. 'Oh my,' she thought, 'he actually said hot water, not sonic shower.' Usually, showers with water were something left to vacations or trips to the spa. But this appeared to be his only shower unit. If it weren't for the sonic clothes washer in the laundry room, she would start to suspect that she had fallen into a time warp. Speaking of which… A quick trip to the laundry room allowed her to retrieve her now clean underwear. She then went to the bedroom to collect her pants, shirt and shoes. Armed with her clothes, she went back to the bathroom for her shower. The temperature controls were easy enough to figure out and soon, soothing hot water was flowing around her body.
He was right, the hot water caressing her body was tremendously therapeutic. It almost felt sinful. After making sure that all the previous night's experience was washed from her body, she reluctantly shut down the shower and dried herself off. 'This, I could get used to.' She knew that most people in society didn't have the time for such "frivolous" things as water showers. But she also knew that a sonic shower would never be as satisfying ever again. Another experience for which to thank Mr. Rancher (and of course that horse too). Now fully clothed and refreshed, she felt ready to tackle the world once again.
Looking outside, she could see the beautiful, partly cloudy sky. It was in sharp contrast to the monsoon-like weather from the night before. 'I think a walk outside would be a perfect way to clear my head right now. Besides it'll give me a chance to get a good look at this place.' Knowing that it might be a little chilly, she grabbed the sweatshirt she had slept in and made her way to the glass doors. Stepping outside, she scanned the Rancher's domain.
She realized that the house itself, while not small, wasn't very large. The outside of the house matched the interior, with natural woods finishing the walls instead of the usual synthetic painted material used in typical homes. She was currently standing on a wooden deck, with a couple of steps off to the left leading to the rest of the property. She noticed that there was no pavement on the property, nor was there a garage for housing ground vehicles. About 100 feet north of the house was a large stable.
'Probably keeps his vehicles in there with the horses,' she thought sarcastically. Exploring the property, a sound invaded her thoughts. A semi-regular "thunk" sound drifted from behind the stable. Curiosity refused to let her remain where she was standing, and she walked toward the stable, in the direction of the sound. On the way there, she tried to guess at the cause of the sound. 'Let me see. Someone's digging for gold in a secret mine behind the stable. No that wouldn't be right, so far from the mountains. Hmmm,…the horses are learning to tap dance. No, the sound is too slow. I know! He's beating that poor quilt for letting me get out of bed before he wanted. Then again he doesn't seem like the type to beat poor, defenseless quilts.'
She giggled a little at the silly line of reasoning her mind had taken. Her mother was always complaining about her strange sense of humor. Passing the open door of the stables, she noticed that there were neither horses nor vehicles inside.
Rounding the corner, she saw what was really causing the sound. Her host, his back to her, was standing in front of a large chopping block. On his left side was a large pile of logs. Smaller logs could be seen on either side of the chopping block. His right hand held a large double bladed axe. With a graceful motion, he grabbed a log from the pile with his left hand and placed it upright on the chopping block. Without interrupting his motion, he swung the axe in a circular arc toward the log. His left hand joined his right on the axe in mid swing in time for him to bring the axe down on the log with both hands. The axe neatly cleaved the log in two, each half falling onto the sides of chopping block. With little pause, he reset his position and repeated the procedure. To Liz, it was like watching a ballet. After she witnessed the third log being split, he stopped. Swinging the axe up on his right shoulder, he turned around to face her and said, "Dr. Ellington, I presume?"
Before she could respond, he snickered a little and said, "You know, I always wanted to say something like that."
She gave him one of her 'I'm on to you' glares and answered, "Yes, well once again you seem to know something else about me without me telling you. Now I know that my driver's license doesn't say I'm 'Dr.' anybody. So just how did you know…"
"How did I know," he interrupted, "that you're Dr. Elizabeth Joy Ellington? Ph.D. in both anthropology and archeology and a professor at UCLA. Discoverer and world renowned expert of lost and forgotten cultures. How did I know that?"
Now taken completely off guard, she came back with the pithy response of, "Yea, …that."
While he was talking, he had made his way toward her until he was now only 3 or 4 feet from her. His slightly impish expression changed back into his normal somber look. "Sorry, I didn't mean to catch you off guard. Actually, I've read a few of your books so I recognized your name. Of course your last book has probably made you kind of famous. It was a real coup for you to get the last interview with Matthew Kent before he died. And to top it off, to get permission to write the 'official' history of Superman and his descendants."
"Oh, right. I guess I'm not used to the notoriety yet. Sorry. I've been a little overly paranoid lately. Must be the stress of the job." She hoped that he would accept that explanation at face value.
"Must be that," he replied. "Of course investigating the resurgence of an 'ancient evil' sometimes takes toll on a person." He said the last part humorlessly, almost with a knowing expression on his face.
"Oh lord, I did really tell you that, didn't I?" she asked with a slight grimace on her face.
"Maybe I was exaggerating just a little."
"You don't seem the kind to exaggerate something like that," he said. "In fact, considering the style of your books, hearing something like that from you almost makes me worry a little."
Yet another strange comment from him. He really was a walking paradox. He went from looking like a mischievous boy making that 'I presume' comment, to the next moment looking like the somber contemplative man who was taking her fears seriously. She once again took in his presence as he stood in front of her, now in the light of day. His clothes were in terrible repair with several small holes in his jeans and the open flannel shirt he was wearing. The black tee shirt he wore underneath didn't look in any better condition. His beard had a slightly scruffy look to it, being in bad need of a proper trimming. His hair also probably hadn't had a decent trim in ages. With his face smudged with grim, and the axe held loosely over his shoulder, he stood there looking … 'magnificent.'
'Where the hell did that come from?' She had better shift gears here.
"That was some trick with the logs there. Where did you learn that from Mr. , um , … what did you say your name was?"
"I didn't," he replied. "Actually the log splitting is something I …"
"Wait just a minute buddy! I know you've been real nice to me and all. Not counting, of course, the near coronary you gave me an hour ago. But I'm starting to suspect the worst here. I had just recently discounted the serial killer theory after reading your note. But you seem to know a lot about me and I don't even know your name. Plus the fact I'm God knows where, with apparently no other human beings for 200 miles. Not that being in the middle of nowhere has ever really bothered me before, but at least the natives in the middle of that nowhere would share little bits of information with me. Like their names. And why aren't there any horses in your stable?" She stood there with her fists on her hips waiting for a decent answer from him.
Seemingly unfazed but her diatribe he replied, "I said I didn't, not that I wouldn't."
"I mean I just remembered that I hadn't mentioned my name to you yet," he said. "That doesn't mean I wasn't ever going to tell you."
"Well?" she inquired with raised eyebrows.
"Would that be Mr. Caleb or just Caleb?"
"Actually it's Caleb Smith. Oh, by the way they're in the back pasture, getting their dinner and a little exercise."
"And they would be…?"
"The horses. You asked where they were."
She didn't know what to think now. "You really are a strange one, Mr. Smith."
"So I've been told. However, that comment does sound a little odd coming from a woman who was out in the middle of a near monsoon, looking for a nonexistent person."
She sighed and said, "It's actually a long story."
"That's O.K., we've got all night. The only way out of here is by horseback, which is 4 days' ride. Luckily, the day after tomorrow Jeb will be coming by to deliver my weekly supplies and mail. You can hitch a ride with him then. We can also let him know about the demise of his beloved SUV. Geez, he must have been really taken in by those green eyes of yours to rent out his baby." At that comment, she could feel her heart flutter slightly. Not noticing he continued, "So how about we go inside? I'll clean up and start dinner. Then you can tell me you're long story over coffee."
"Actually, that sounds great," she replied. "So what about the logs?"
"They don't eat dinner," he deadpanned.
"Ha, Ha." A large smile appeared on her face. "You know what I mean. You were going to tell me about your log trick."
"Oh that. No trick. Actually it's a form of meditation I picked up from a … um, book I read. You're the anthropologist, you tell me where it's from."
Her face took on a look of concentration as she searched her brain. After a few moments she snapped her fingers and said "Shoalin hatchet exercises!" Funny how she felt like she had become the pupil, and he the teacher.
"Right. I found it fascinating that such a physical activity could put you in a relaxed and reflective state. Actually, the key is to use just enough force to split the wood and no more. If I do it right, the axe should never bite into the chopping block. Control is very important. More important than the strength." As he finished his last sentence his face grew very wistful. He then looked her directly in the eyes and said, "Time to go inside."
Without waiting for a response, he started back toward the house. Passing an open bin he flicked the axe over his shoulder, causing it to land inside the bin. Realizing that she hadn't moved yet, she started jogging to catch up with him. He entered the house through the glass doors and made his way down the hallway. "I won't be long. Think about what you would like to eat." He then disappeared through one of the bedroom doors.
'So what am I going to tell him?' she thought. 'It's not like he'd be able to help a lot. Then again it'll be safe to talk to him about it. It's been so hard not being able to share this with anyone. Most people think I'm crazy, and the ones who don't are probably out to kill me.' She looked again around the room for clues to her host's personality. There were no family pictures to be found on the bookshelves or the wall. 'Maybe his family is all gone. That's why he lives out here alone. I wonder if he'd open up to me.' She heard running water and surmised that her host was in the shower. 'I guess I can refer to him by name now.' She began to speculate what circumstances led Caleb Smith to this reclusive life. She imagined a tragic romance, probably rejected by the love of his life, that had caused him to give up on people. She found herself being angry with some imaginary woman. 'How could she do that to him?'
'Wow, I have been working too hard. I just yelled at a nonexistent woman. I guess that matches the nonexistent man I'm looking for.' She then heard footsteps approaching and turned to see him entering the living room.
"Well, decided on what kind of food you wanted? I can cook about any style you can think of."
'Now he cleans up real nice,' she thought. The scruffy man who had entered the house 15 minutes ago had transformed into the man who stood before her now. In the short time he was gone, he had trimmed his beard and hair. He was wearing a pair of casual dress slacks with a pull over polo shirt. The shower had left him clean and fresh looking. The transformation, in such a short time, was amazing. If she didn't know that he was the only human for 200 miles, she wouldn't have immediately recognized him.
"I'm sure anything you do, um … cook would be great. Surprise me."
"O.K. I'll surprise you. That cabinet over there holds a bunch of book chips and a reader if you want to do something while you're waiting. Unless you want to come into the kitchen and look over my shoulder while I cook."
"If you don't mind," she said, "I think I'll look over your shoulder. Maybe you can tell me a little about yourself."
"What if there's nothing to tell?" he replied as he made his way to the kitchen.
"Somehow I doubt that. You know, just from what I observed in the last couple of hours about how you live, I could write at least three papers. You've practically developed your own culture."
Pausing from taking food out of the refrigerator he said, "I don't think I would like that very much."
"I didn't say I would, just that I could. But I'd still like to get to know a little about you."
"And what would you do with this knowledge?" he asked.
"I just like to know, that's all. I'm curious about my rescuer." She wasn't above a little flirting to get what she wanted, so she gave him her best "doe-eyed" look she could muster. She remembered one man commenting that her eyes could be registered as deadly weapons.
He sighed. Looking at her, he said, "I see. So let me guess. It kills you when you can't know everything. And if you don't know it, then you do everything possible to get the information, even if it means stepping on land mines along the way."
"Have you talked to my mother?" she asked.
"No, just a lucky guess."
"So do you always guess at things this well? Wait, forget it. I withdraw the question. So what's for dinner?"
"Cuban. Specifically 'Arroz con Pollo'." He had already started cooking a large pot of rice and was now chopping some vegetables. "You know, you should really be careful. You're going to give someone whiplash someday as fast as you change subjects in a single conversation." He took out a package of what look like chopped up chicken and dumped it into a frying pan. He then put the vegetables into the pan and poured some sauce from a bottle onto the mixture.
Not to be outdone, she fired back, "Not to worry, I'm insured." She actually got him to chuckle at that. Deciding that it was warm enough for her, Liz slipped off her sweatshirt and draped it over the back of one of the kitchen chairs. She then jumped onto the far end of the counter and continued to observe him cook. She again noted that the stove actually used flames to produce heat, instead of directed microwaves pulses. 'Time to kick off the investigation,' she thought. Giving him a casual, but sultry smile she asked, "So how long have you been out here?"
"Long enough," he replied simply, without looking up from his cooking.
"I was kind of looking for something a little more informative. Maybe even employing units of time in your answer. I would be satisfied with something rounded to the nearest year, for simplicity's sake." Since subtlety and flirting wasn't working, she'd see how sarcasm would go over.
"11 years, 2 months, 1 week, 4 days. That is, if you count from the time I first slept here in a tent. Less, if you count when I moved into this house. Now your turn. Why do you think there's another descendant of Clark Kent to be found? I thought Matthew Kent was the last descendent to carry the Kent name. After he passed away last year, there isn't anybody left who bears the name Kent. At least that's what your book says."
She hesitated before answering him. 'Should I share this with him? He'll probably laugh when I tell him.'
"You know, I won't laugh if you tell me," he said as he continued to prepare the meal.
'Spooky. How did he do that?' "O.K. Just as long as you promise not to laugh, snicker, or call me crazy. For the last year, I've been gathering data that suggests there is a super powered being operating in the U.S. for quite some time. I've been plotting the occurrences of miraculous rescues of people over the last 10 years. Like trapped people who suddenly find themselves outside a burning building, and they don't know how they got there. Sinking ships being guided mysteriously to shallow waters. Space Station Armstrong recovering spontaneously from a thruster failure just before it would have entered the atmosphere. It's fantastic. And no one seems to question it. Amazingly, in all that time, I was able to find only one photo of a "miracle rescue". It's not great, but it does show the outline of what is definitely a man holding up a microwave tower. He was covered in all black, even a black hood. I'm convinced that this is one of the earlier descendants of Clark, who still has some of the Kryptonian super abilities. He would have to be no more than fourth generation since he was observed flying. Of course that would make him between 110 and 130 years old. That would be entirely possible of course since Kyle Kent, the last official Superman, passed away at a 143."
"And here's the best part. By plotting response times to various emergencies which had help from this man, I was able to deduce that he is based somewhere in Montana. I narrowed it down to about a 10,000 square mile area. So what do you think?" Her eyes were practically glowing with excitement.
Finally, with a pause in her explanation long enough for him to respond he said, "I think that's … amazing. Astounding really. I didn't even consider that possibility."
"I know what you mean. The possibility that a Superman might still exist. I have so many questions for him. And so much to tell him. I really need to find him."
As Caleb mixed the contents of the frying pan into the rice he softly spoke, "It doesn't sound like he wants to be found. Maybe he has reasons for staying hidden."
"Perhaps, but I need him. I mean the world needs him. Something very evil is reappearing, and I need to tell him… no, warn him about it. Plus, of course, I would love to talk to one of Clark's family who might have actually known him, even if it was for only a short while. I always felt that Matthew somewhat idealized his remembrance of the family legends."
"Still, it seems that he may just want to be left alone."
"If he does, then I'll just let him know what's going on and then I'll leave. I'll bet you though, I can make him open up to me. I just know I can." The intensity radiated from her body.
"You know, you're really going to have to work on that "lack of confidence" thing," he muttered sarcastically.
Turning off the burners on the stove he announced, "Supper's done, time to eat." He extended his hand to assist her down. As she placed her hand in his, she got that same feeling as before. It made her want to keep holding on, but at the same time it bothered her. With his assistance, she jumped down and went to sit down at the small breakfast nook. A minute later he placed a steaming plate of his creation in front of her. The smell was out of this world. He then placed a glass of water down for her, and then sat down himself.
"Dig in," he said. Her first bite transported her taste buds to heaven. He was really spoiling her. It might be a tough decision to actually leave when Jeb showed up in a couple of days.
"So now it's your turn again," she said. "Why do you live here alone?" she asked bluntly.
He lowered his eyes and appeared to be in deep concentration. Finally looking like he had formulated his answer, but not looking up he said, "Because I have no one to share it with."
"Never married? No kids? Wife left you?" The last question she said carefully, almost afraid to hear the answer.
"My wife past away over 12 years ago. I have no children."
"Oh, I'm so sorry Caleb." Her heart tightened a little as she could hear the pain in his voice.
"It's alright, it was a long time ago. And the time we were together was wonderful. Not perfect of course, but wonderful never-the-less."
She carefully phrased her next question. "Haven't you met anyone else in all this time? I mean it seems like, well, a long time ago."
She could see the sadness in his eyes as he responded, "You know, every time I considered seeing someone else, it always seemed like I was…, well, I was cheating on her somehow. Like maybe she was waiting for me somewhere. I guess also, I never really believed that I could find someone else who would complete me like she did."
Liz's eyes started to water a little. She reached out and touched the top of his hand. Up until this moment, she couldn't believe that a man could love as deeply as this man had loved his wife. She knew then that if she could find anyone who would love her even half as much, she could be truly happy. "Caleb, I don't know what your wife was like. But if she loved you as much as you loved her, I don't believe that she would have wanted you to spend the rest of your life alone. I think that you have a lot to give, and it would be a shame to keep yourself isolated from the rest of the world. Listen, I've only known you for a few hours, but you feel like a friend to me already. Just think what kind of relationship you could have with someone you get to know on a long term basis. Like maybe a whole day." She grinned a little at her attempt to lighten his mood.
Almost too softly for her to hear he said, "She would be so angry with me if she saw me now. But I don't know if I have the heart to go through it again — to love someone and lose them."
"There are no guarantees in life, you should know that. If you're afraid of the pain, you'll never take the chance on happiness. You've created a prison for yourself here. There's no one you can touch, and no one can reach out to you. You're not really living anymore. You're just existing." At this point she wasn't sure if she was trying to convince him or herself. Looking at Caleb's life had somehow reminded her how isolated she sometimes felt.
Slowly his hand turned so it clasped hers. He squeezed her hand gently as he stared at her fingers. He looked like he was struggling deep within himself. "Elizabeth, thank you for considering me a friend. It's been a long time since someone has called me that. You're right, maybe too long."
Usually she only liked to be called Liz. Her full name always reminded her of being scolded by her mother. But coming from him, her name sounded beautiful. Continuing her attempt to brighten his mood she said, "Well it's the least I could do for someone who risks his life to pull me from the jaws of death," she said with a wide grin on her face.
"Anytime," he said, with a slight chuckle in his voice. He released her hand and pointed in her general direction. "I guess it's your turn now. What is this 'ancient evil' threatening the world?" His tone had a slightly amused tone to it.
Giving him a minor, but non-deadly, glare she said, "Well maybe ancient was an extreme term. But their ideas of hatred are ancient."
Shaking his head he said, "I thought the world had gotten past the petty hatreds that almost destroyed us."
"I was a little surprised myself. The half of the world's population that survived the Third World War pretty much decided to abandon the stuff that brought us to the point of Armageddon. Actually we were very lucky, considering that we wouldn't have survived at all if not for the efforts of Joel Kent and Martha Olsen. Not to mention what their grandfather did before he died. It was amazing really. I wish I could have met him. There is so I much I would ask him." Liz started to get a far away look in her eye.
"Yeah, well everyone would have liked to have met Superman," noted Caleb, with a slight bit a sarcasm in his voice.
"No," replied Liz, "I meant I would have lots of questions for Clark Kent. The way he lived his life. The sacrifices he made to help, and the struggles he had in order to have some measure of a normal life, apart from being the "hero" all the time. I mean this man could have had anything he wanted, but all he did was help people and fight crime. And the only compensation he got was a pat on the back and an occasional megalomaniac trying to kill him."
Caleb's expression became inquisitive and he looked directly into Liz's eyes. "Really? I didn't get that tone from your book. Your portrayal of Clark Kent in the book seemed… I don't know, a little idealized maybe? I kind of wondered if he was real or not."
"Unfortunately the accounts in my book were given to me by Matthew, who was the head of the Superman foundation at the time. After I wrote it, I realized just how "idealized" his recollections were of his ancestors. That's another reason I need to find Superm…, I mean this mystery man. If what I think is true, then he must have known Clark, even it is was only for a little while. I'm writing a follow up to the original book. Sort of a man-behind-the- hero story. I'm especially interested in his dependence on Lois Lane."
"Dependence ? You think that Superman needed Lois Lane in some way to function?"
"Well I was talking about Clark's dependence on Lois. Can you imagine shouldering the responsibility of being Superman, and trying to balance it with the normal life of a human? From other pieces of information I've been able to gather, plus reading practically everything Clark and Lois wrote during their life, I get the impression that he needed Lois's support to help him cope with the stress of being a superhero. When I read Clark's work, I sensed that he felt deeply for those who were in need or hurting in some way. I can't even imagine how it would be for a person like that to witness the tragedies that Superman dealt with on a day-to-day basis. I truly believe that having the support of someone like Lois was as essential to him as the super powers themselves."
Caleb looked slightly stunned. "That's an astounding insight on so little evidence."
"I started to get the idea after reading Clark Kent's first article for the Daily Planet. It's in the Smithsonian now you know. It was really beautiful. I could feel Beatrice's sadness at the closure of that part of her life. Clark must have been a very empathetic person. I can only imagine how it must have been for someone like that when he couldn't save someone. Don't you think it would have been tough on him?'
"Yes," Caleb said slowly, "it must have been very hard for him".
"No kidding. So while everyone is busy idolizing what Superman represents, I'm going to get the, what was term, … the … um dig on the real story behind Clark and Lois."
"What?" she asked.
"I believe the term you were looking for was 'scoop'," he replied.
"Yeah, that. Anyway, I need to get the real story. I think when I finally write it, the core of the story will be the love story between Clark and Lois. How together they created and sustained the myth of the superhero with their great love for each other." She said the last sentence very wistfully while staring directly into Caleb's eyes. Suddenly she blinked and added, "And of course warn him."
Caleb was torn out of the trance that Elizabeth had lulled him into. "Warn him?" he asked.
"Well they, sort of, know now that he might exist," she said sheepishly. "And it might be, kind of, because of me."
"And they would be…?"
"They call themselves 'Nazis'."
"I see. Well I am very familiar with the goals and methods of that group of people. I would have thought the ideals of the group died out a long time ago. And they would be looking for Superman because…?"
"They know about the globe," she grimaced.
"The globe? This gets worse, doesn't it?"
Still looking very guilty she continued, "Actually yes. You see I found a journal which had pictures of a small globe. The globe was a representation of Krypton, at least on the surface. The journal was written by a Lara Olsen, a granddaughter of Clark and Lois. I discovered it in a vault in the old Star Labs building in Metropolis. The globe was part of the ship which brought Clark here to Earth. Besides being a map of Krypton, it was some kind of combination navigation unit and record keeper. The journal tells how Clark didn't even know he was from Krypton until he found the globe when he was an adult. The journal alluded to the ship being stolen by some lunatic and Clark not retrieving it until just after he starting working at the Daily Planet. The globe is a sophisticated mechanism and computer device. When Clark found it, the globe showed him a holographic message from his biological father. That's how Superman knew of his origins. Before then he really didn't know."
"Now here's the bad part. Lara was some kind of scientist, and she was allowed to study the globe for her grandfather. She found a way to harness the energies inside the globe, which are considerable, and use them for powering other devices. She documented the process in her journal."
"And this is bad because…"
"The Nazis stole it."
"By it, I take it you mean the Journal," Caleb asked.
"Unfortunately. You see, I believe now that the head of my department back at UCLA is a key figure in this Nazi organization."
"And you showed him the journal."
"Does it get any worse?"
"Apparently if the energies of the globe are harnessed in just the right, or should I say wrong way, they could be used to create a weapon of mass destruction."
"Just what level of mass destruction are we talking about here?" Caleb asked.
"From what I read in the journal, one such weapon could wipe out the western half of the United States. They could effectively hold the world hostage. That's why I need to find this Superman. The one problem with our 'gentler' society is that the law enforcement agencies have become a little complacent. The Nazis are ruthless and don't hesitate to kill anyone who stands in their way. They've begun to assert themselves and are committing strings of robberies to build up a financial base. The local authorities are out of practice dealing with a group like this. But a Superman would be able to handle them." She lowered her eyes and said slowly, "Oh yes, just so you know, there is one last thing."
"I shudder to think." At this point he looked almost numb.
"I also showed my department head all of my research on finding this Superman," she admitted reluctantly, looking at him through her eyelashes. "If he is real, and if I am right about his location, then they're looking for him too. And they know where to look."
She hadn't realized how much a burden it had been to keep this all to herself. Something about Caleb made her want to trust him with it all. And once she had started, she couldn't stop herself until she had shared everything with him. She was now looking at him expectantly for some sign of support. Maybe even, dared she hope, approval.
Caleb looked at her with a neutral, but thoughtful, expression. "So, …let me see if I can recap the situation."
"A. — You're searching for a super-powered descendant of Superman, but really don't know for sure if he exists."
"B. — If he does exist, he probably wants to stay hidden. Of course, if he is super-powered, then he can easily stay hidden."
"C. — A group of Nazis have a journal, that documents a way to use a Kryptonian artifact, which may or may not be in the possession of this 'Superman', to create a weapon of mass destruction."
"D. — These Nazis have your research regarding the location of this 'Superman', and may, in fact, be looking for him."
Caleb continued, "Now this part I'm a little fuzzy on. Even if they found him, and he, in fact, has this globe, how would they force him to hand it over?"
Liz had a painful look on her face as she answered, "Oh yeah. There is one other thing I forgot to tell you. They somehow managed to steal a high-energy weapon from the government. I think that it was an inside job. While it may not be able to kill him, it reportedly has the power to incapacitate a super-powered Kryptonian for short periods of time."
Caleb nodded his head knowingly and said, "Of course. Actually, that part I should have guessed. Is that all?"
"Yes, I think you've captured the essence of my current situation," Liz replied.
He appeared to be deciding something as he looked at her, which made Liz even more nervous. Seemingly coming to some kind of decision, his face started to form a small smile.
"You realize, of course, that I'm going to have to help you now," he said.
Although it was, subconsciously, the response she had been hoping for, she wasn't going to let him just assume anything. "So you think I need help? Don't you think I'd be able to handle this on my own?"
"Have you found this 'Superman'?"
"Do you have any idea where to pick up your search from here?"
"Not really, now that you mention it." She had the sense to look appropriately sheepish.
"Let me rephrase it then. Would you allow me to assist you on your quest? You would, in fact, be helping me with my own mental well-being. I seem to have this nearly unhealthy need to help people in trouble… even if it requires me to step on land mines along the way."
A grin began to spread across Liz's face. 'Well, since he put it that way…' she thought. She knew it was crazy to get Caleb involved, but she now felt like she really needed him. 'I need him to help. Yes, help me with my search. That's what I need him for,' she confirmed to herself.
"O.K., I guess a native Montana man is just what I need right now." Then after a slight pause, she quickly added, "To help me find this guy, of course."
"Of course. I think that the first order of business will be for you to meet Moonbeam tomorrow," stated Caleb matter- of-factly.
"Moonbeam is one of my mares. She is the companion to Midnight, my personal riding horse." He paused a moment, and then with a wistful expression continued. "It's funny, they're almost inseparable from one another. After the first time Midnight fathered a colt with Moonbeam, they could never be paired with any other horse. In the last 8 years, the only children that Midnight and Moonbeam have produced have been with each other. It's actually very unusual for horses to do that. When I ride Midnight, Moonbeam often tags along carrying supplies for me." Liz noted how he spoke about his horses more in human terms than with the usual equestrian expressions.
"And why am I meeting this horse?"
"Because tomorrow you are getting your first riding lesson. That is, assuming you don't know how to ride already." Caleb got up as he spoke, and started to clean up the dishes.
"And you assumed this because…" Liz asked, trying hard to look upset at him.
"Lack of open range at UCLA?" he replied from the sink.
Liz laughed despite herself. "O.K., I'll give you that one. But I thought Jeb is going to be by in a couple of days. I didn't need to ride out of here on horseback."
"I was thinking that maybe we could start your search by horseback. You know, to find your Superman."
Liz was genuinely surprised. "You believe me? Enough to help me?"
"You forgot my compulsion to help. Besides, I trust your judgment. You have to be good at what you do in order to have gained the respect that you have in your field."
"Thanks," Liz said. "We might as well then …" Liz stopped for a second and exclaimed, "The bald man is flying in tonight!"
Without missing a beat Caleb shot back, "The fat lady sings at midnight?"
Giving him a slight smirk she said, "Sorry. Sort of switched gears there, didn't I?"
"I'm starting to get used it. I assume you're going explain that last comment."
"It's how I know about the Nazis." Caleb raised an eyebrow, giving her an 'I assume this is relevant' look. "You see, after I presented my evidence to Dr. Risse, — that's my soon-to-be ex-department head, — I had gone back to my office." With a sudden veering in her thought process, Liz exclaimed, "That rat. He scoffed at my evidence. Said it didn't prove anything!"
Getting back to her original point, she continued, "Anyway, I had forgotten to ask him permission to take a few days off to go look for Superman. I couldn't raise him on the phone. So I went back to his office."
"Now he's just Superman?" Caleb inquired.
"Oh well, it sounds kind of funny referring to him as 'the last Superman'."
"Go on," said Caleb as he sat back down across from Liz.
"When I got to Dr. Risse's office, I heard him talking to this other guy inside. They were discussing my evidence and making plans to take advantage of it. My evidence! I was about to storm in there and give them a piece of my mind, when I heard them talking about the journal. That's when I learned about the plans to get the globe and create the weapon. It was also how I found out that they were part of this Nazi group. They ended their discussion with Dr. Risse's visitor talking about coming out here with a 'squad', whatever that is, and looking for Superman and the globe."
Liz finally took a moment to catch a breath. It struck her that this 'simple' Montana rancher seemed awfully calm listening to, what had to be, a very unusual story. She then continued, "I heard him starting to leave, so I hid somewhere to get a look at him as he came out. The thing I remember most was that he is completely bald. When I got back to my apartment, I found it ransacked, and the journal missing."
"Do you think that these people have any idea that you are onto them?" asked Caleb.
"I don't think so. Of course, I didn't make a secret of the fact that I was coming out here. But I was going to do that whether or not I knew about them."
Caleb appeared to think about this a little while and then said, "O.K. It seems that there's nothing more we can do tonight. I vote that we relax and get some rest. We'll get a fresh start in the morning."
Getting up once again, he asked Liz, "Would you like some tea or coffee?"
"Tea would be great, if you've got something without caffeine."
"No problem," he said. "Why don't you go relax on the couch and I'll bring us some tea out there. If you have any trouble finding the couch, just follow the trail of bread crumbs." He turned and started to fill a teapot with water.
Liz got up and walked up to her host, wearing a slightly menacing look. "If I knew you were so fussy, I would have gotten on my hands and knees and retrieved all of those crumbs for you."
As he turned to face her, she once again saw the mischievous little boy grin she had seen briefly outside. This time though, it didn't quickly disappear as it had the first time. 'This is a part of the real Caleb that he's hiding away,' she thought.
Through his grin he said, "Well, I guess I can live with it. Go on, I'll be right there." As he turned back to attend to the kettle and find teacups, Liz felt a little something inside of her tugging at her heart. That little grin was like a gift to her. It was something that he had kept locked away, behind the sadness. But at that moment, he had unwrapped it and presented it just for her to see. She felt privileged that he had chosen her for that special gift.
She turned and made her way to the living room. As she sat down, she began to consider the complexity of the man in the kitchen. No matter what he said, he was not just a 'plain ole rancher.' He was obviously a very intelligent man. He seemed undeterred every time she 'brought to his attention' something she was upset with, like a man long practiced at dealing with confrontation. Yet, he carried himself with an air of quiet sophistication. In contrast, he chose to live a simple life, out here in the wilderness, with a minimum of modern conveniences.
Within his eyes shone a gentle wisdom that encouraged her to confide in him. To trust him. And for reasons she could not understand, he obviously had decided to trust her. Another gift he had given her tonight. She decided to make it her goal, even if her quest was a failure, to bring a little happiness back into his world.
Soft footsteps announced Caleb entering the living room. He was carrying a tray with tea and scones. He set it down on the coffee table and sat next to her on the couch. "Here, this is my own special herb tea blend. The scones are my mother's recipe." She picked up her cup and sipped the tea. It was at a perfect temperature for drinking. "This is delicious. So what's inside your special blend?" she asked.
"Sorry, trade secret."
"You know, you shouldn't keep secrets from me," she replied.
"And why is that?"
"Because I'll just find them out on my own anyway. So you might as well 'fess up now and save me the trouble of torturing it out of you later."
She could tell from Caleb's face that he was about to respond, but then suppressed whatever he was going to say and kept silent. He quickly averted his eyes from hers and started to sip his tea.
"Well?" she asked with a mock seriousness in her voice. "The tea or the torture." She knew that she was probably already torturing her poor rancher, but she couldn't help herself. 'Strange,' she thought, 'when did I start thinking of him as "my rancher"?'
His expression told her that she might have pushed the teasing a little too far. "All right, I'll let you off the hook if these scones are really good," she said as she picked one up from the tray. Before she bit into it, the image of crumbs invaded her mind, and she grabbed a napkin and held it under the scone. Taking a bite, a near rapturous look formed on her face. "This is heaven. You know, I'm going to gain a lot of weight if I have to stay here for a few days."
Caleb's face looked like he was searching for the appropriate thing to say next. He seemed to be at a loss for what to do or say next. 'Which of course was just the effect that I was going for,' Liz thought as she sipped her tea.
He finally got out, "Would you like to listen to some music?"
"You mean you actually have an audio system? I mean, sure, that would be great. What do you have to listen to? Anything mellow or semi-mellow will be fine with me. Just none of that Neo-Techno stuff that's been popular with the under-20 crowd recently. You know, I don't understand why every time they come out with a new variation of music, it's Neo-this, or Neo-that." After a pause she continued, "Can you really call it music if you don't use real musical instruments? I don't think so, but there must have been at least 12 of these Neo-fads in the last two years. And it just sounds like slight variations of the same thing to me anyway. So I don't think Neo fits very well, do you? How about Mozart?" She looked at Caleb inquisitively over the rim of her teacup.
He looked at her with a face of intense concentration, as if he was making an effort to follow her conversation. "I think I have something that will satisfy you." He walked over to the bookcase and opened the small cabinet door on the bottom. Inside was a small audio system with a case of music cards. He looked for a moment, then selected one of the cards and inserted it in the machine. Strains of Glenn Miller's 'Moonlight Serenade' drifted into the room.
"That's beautiful Caleb. What is it?"
"It's Glenn Miller. Early twentieth century big band music. You like it?"
"Yes, I do. Why don't I hear music like this more often?"
"It's from a time that some people like to forget. Most people consider everything from the twentieth and twenty- first centuries as worthless, because of the parts that were horrible about that era. Three world wars, organized crime, drugs, corrupt politicians. They want to forget that time, embrace the present, and the gains that they believe society has made. They forget the good things that were part of that time on this planet. The passions that drove good people to do what was right, and to create what was beautiful. In spite of the ugliness and evil that existed, good people still persevered and their efforts still shone through. There were many brave and courageous people who helped create the world we have now. But they are forgotten."
Caleb was now staring at the reddening sky outside his window. He continued, "Sometimes, I get worried about this 'great society' we've created for ourselves. Of course, I appreciate the improvements and the fact that there is much less hatred and greed. But I'm afraid that society has put on blinders to the lessons of the past, and that George Santayana's warning might become true someday: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it'."
Liz looked at him quizzically and said, "That seems familiar somehow, but I can't quite place it."
"Well, that's what he actually said. You've probably only heard the paraphrased version: 'Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.' But the idea is the same. What you told me about the authorities inability to handle these 'Nazis' just confirms my fears."
"You're right, it may be time to find your Superman and convince him that it's time for him to join the world again."
Liz was almost speechless. This was almost what she had been thinking when she had started her quest. Tonight, Caleb had quickly become her friend. But now he was becoming more. She knew now that she had gained a partner in her quest.
Caleb turned and looked at her apologetically. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get so melancholy on you." He wore a small, sad smile as he spoke.
"That's alright Caleb. I've been kind of thinking along the same lines for a while now. I first got into archeology because I was always fascinated by the past. It was my father's fault really."
"Was he an archeologist or a historian?" Caleb asked.
"No. He was a civil engineer and architect. But he specialized in rebuilding those areas that had never been revitalized since the war. And he dragged my mom and me to every site he worked on. He was really big on keeping the family together no matter what. Mom was his partner. He always said she was the creative one, and he was just a glorified mechanic. Of course, I knew better. They are a real team in everything. I think I've subconsciously been waiting for someone to give me the same feeling my mom and dad have with each other."
Liz had gotten a slightly wistful expression in her eyes as she spoke about her parents. Composing herself, she continued, "And they both have a passion for rebuilding. In fact, they're on a job right now, I think in Metropolis. Some place called Hobbs Bay."
She saw a strange expression cross Caleb's face, but she continued. "Anyway, every site they took me to had the remains of the past left behind. I would spend hours exploring the ruins, imagining what the stories were of the people who had lived there many years ago. After a while, I didn't want to just imagine the stories, I wanted to discover the true stories. So I found myself one day with Ph.D.'s in anthropology and archeology, running around the world looking for lost cultures."
"And writing a lot of award winning books," added Caleb.
"Oh, yeah. Well, I never really paid much attention to awards. I've never been very competitive. So I never worried much about the awards I had won. Guess it comes from being an only child. No sibling rivalry to worry about. Anyway, my main motivation was to learn the true stories of our past, so that I could share them with others."
Caleb was looking at her again with that introspective look. It was, of course, driving her crazy that she didn't know what he was thinking. So this time she tried the direct approach. "So, Mr. Smith, care to share your thoughts? Or are you going to hide behind a mysterious smile?.
"It depends. Do you have a penny?" he asked.
"I'm afraid they don't use pennies anymore. Why do I need a penny for you to share your thoughts with me?"
"It's an old expression. 'A penny for your thoughts.' Didn't learn that in archeology school?"
"No. I was out washing my hair the day the class reviewed obscure expressions of the, I assume, twentieth century."
"Actually, I think it's older, but I'm not sure."
"I see," she replied. "Well, in the absence of a penny, what would you take in fair trade for your thoughts?"
He rubbed his beard thoughtfully with his right hand and appeared to contemplate it deeply. Underneath though, she could see the teasing twinkle in his eye. After a moment he said, "Well, there is the matter of the crumbs in my living room. I believe removal of the crumbs would be worth a penny."
"Let me take a wild leap of faith here and guess that you don't own a robovac."
"So I would be expected to perform this service for you by picking up each crumb one at a time?"
"Not quite," he replied. "I do own a vacuum cleaner. A little pushing and you would be done in no time."
"And does this service require immediate attention?" she asked with mock indignation.
"If you promise to get to it tomorrow, I'll take your word of honor as collateral."
"You're pretty trusting, Mr. Rancher. Do you always trust people this easily?" Her question had come out more serious than she intended.
His eyes became slightly more serious to match the tone of the question. "Not anymore. Only archeologists I like."
In the ensuing silence their eyes stayed locked to one another, neither one willing to break the contact. Remembering her original objective, Liz broke eye contact first and said, "Deal!"
"So spill it. I want it all or no deal," she demanded.
Caleb shook his head slowly. Then a laugh began to bubble up from him. Soon the laughter grew until he was gasping for breath. When he paused a second, and observed the annoyed look on her face, he erupted again in a full-blown belly laugh. It began to infect Liz. Soon she was laughing with him. She was laughing so hard at one point, that tears came out of her eyes. Almost falling over from the laughter, she extended her hand and placed it on Caleb's shoulder. They sat there like that for several minutes, both trying to gain control of themselves.
Finally when the laughter had subsided, she found herself looking into his eyes again, this time with her hand on his shoulder.
"Elizabeth, thank you."
"For what? Almost killing you with laughter?"
"I haven't done anything like that in so long, I had forgotten what it meant to laugh."
"Nice to know I can be a source of amusement for you," she said sarcastically. "Now you know you're not going to get out of this by distracting me with a little laugh. So give." Remembering that her hand was still on his shoulder, she quickly moved it back to her lap.
Still smiling he answered, "Fair enough." He then paused a moment to gain his composure and very solemnly said, "I was thinking that it's about time I get out into the world again, and meeting you is probably just the thing I need right now."
Liz looked at him in surprise. He was emerging from the shell he had formed around himself. Not only that, but her presence had been the spark that had drawn him out. She felt like she was a witness to something special. For no reason she could make out, she now felt a little shy in front of him. But to hear him say this to her made her feel good. 'Very good,' she thought to herself.
Not knowing her current thoughts, he continued talking. "Tomorrow you'll meet Moonbeam. She's a beautiful horse. I'm sure you'll take a real shine to her." He paused with a grin on his face. She could almost hear the 'rim shot' in the background after his terrible joke.
Liz bowed her head and put a hand over her eyes. "That was awful. I can't believe you actually said that."
"I thought the rule was, the more terrible the pun, the funnier it is."
"You really need to get out more. Fortunately for you, I came along. So what's your great plan?"
"First, we need to get you comfortable with Moonbeam. And then a couple of simple riding lessons. That'll probably take most of tomorrow. The next day we can go searching for Superman. That is, if you decide to stay here, and not go back with Jeb in a couple of days."
"Are you offering me a place to stay?"
"Sure, but only if you feel comfortable with it."
"Sounds like a plan to me. Of course I'll be comfortable here. You've been nothing but a gentlemen since I've been here." 'Unfortunately.' "So we should get to bed, … our beds. And get some sleep. Yes, sleep. I know that I'll probably need a lot of energy to do that 'bonding thing' with Moonbeam tomorrow. By the way, I need the name of that horse you were looking for last night, and what his or her favorite gift is."
Caleb looked completely bewildered now. "O.K., you got me with that one. Why do you want to buy a gift for the horse I was looking for last night?"
"Well, obviously, to thank him or her. If not for that horse, I wouldn't be here right now drinking tea with you."
"Oh, now I understand. Him. Sinbad. Carrots."
"Good. Hmmm… We need to get to the SUV tomorrow." Caleb started to open his mouth, but she held up her hand to stop him. "And before you ask, it's to retrieve my research which I left inside. For some reason, I forgot to grab it on my way out of the vehicle. Silly me."
Caleb gave a slight chuckle. "And…"
"I know it doesn't look like it, but do you have any form of communications hidden in this place? I would at least like to inform my parents that I'm still alive. Although, they probably haven't noticed, since they usually don't contact me for a week at a time when they're on a job. So I guess I can skip that phone call. But I'd like to know anyway if you have a phone just in case. You know with the bad guys chasing us and all."
"There's one in the cabinet, next to the audio set. No video capability though. Anything else before I tuck you in?"
Liz gave out a slow sigh. "No, that's all I can think of right now." She heard him mutter under his breath, 'That's amazing', but continued as if she didn't notice. "So is that offer for tucking me in real? And do I get a bedtime story?" She gave him her most disgustingly sweet 'little girl' look, and batted her eyes at him a couple of times.
"Well, you have to change your clothes yourself, but I'll check in on you to make sure that you're comfortable. And since it's late young lady, no story for you tonight."
Liz pouted a little and said in a Shirley Temple voice, "No fair! I want a story."
His face lost his teasing look as he said, "Tell you what. Maybe, if you're still hanging around with me in a couple of days, I will tell you a story."
Liz herself grew a little more serious. "Promise?" She knew that somehow she had encouraged him to open up to her. Again, she felt very special because she was the cause of his emergence from his shell, after so long in that sad place.
"Call me when you're ready. I'm going to clean up the tea, and get ready myself for bed." With that he picked up the tea tray and carried it into the kitchen.
Liz made her way the bathroom to wash up and brush her teeth. After finishing, she went to her bedroom and changed into his sweatshirt top. Since it reached almost to her knees, she decided to forgo the pants. She then stuck her head out the door and yelled, "Ready!" She then jumped into bed. 'Tucking in is tucking in,' she thought. 'Let him put the quilt on me.'
A couple of minutes later Caleb walked in to her bedroom. He was wearing long black pajama pants and a black tank top. 'Oh my,' she exclaimed in her mind. 'Maybe asking him to do this wasn't such a good idea.' She could feel her heart starting to beat a little faster, but she made an effort to remain outwardly calm.
He seemed very tentative as he approached her. Nervous would be the word. She could actually see him gulp as he asked, "Comfortable?"
"Well I do need my quilt on."
"Sure, I can do that." He gingerly picked up the edge of the quilt and drew it slowly over her body. To Liz, it felt like a gentle caress.
"Good night, Elizabeth. Sweet dreams."
"Caleb wait." Liz sat up quickly in the bed. "Come here for a moment, near me." He complied and knelt on one knee near her bed, so that their faces were at the same level. "Caleb, I had a very nice time tonight. It was wonderful to have someone to share… to help me with this. But in all of our talking, I didn't get to really express to you my thanks for what you did for me. You saved my life, probably risking your own to do it. I can never really repay you enough for that. And to top it off, your trust in me, your offer to help, has meant so much to me. I just wanted you to know…" With that, before she lost the nerve, she leaned over and kissed him softly on the cheek.
Caleb reached up and placed his fingers on the spot where her lips had touched him. He didn't move or speak for several seconds. When he did, his voice came out in a whisper. "It was my pleasure, Elizabeth." He stood up and walked toward the door. Before he exited the room, he stopped and without turning around he said, "Sleep well." He then left the room, and she could hear him closing the door of his bedroom a few seconds later.
She lay back down in her bed. As she tried to sleep, millions of thoughts ran though her head. But foremost was what had just transpired here in her room. With that simple act of placing the quilt on her, he had aroused more feelings in her than any other man ever had. But she didn't want to get in over her head before she really got to know him better. Something had happened between them tonight, even though he seemed to be resisting it. But, he was still mostly a mystery to her.
She did believe that he had a good, kind heart. One that had been broken long ago. So she had to be gentle with his feelings. But she longed to know more about him. She hoped that they could grow close enough so that he could tell her that 'bedtime story' someday. She fell asleep, not knowing what she would do next about Mr. Caleb Smith.
Liz couldn't breathe. As she tried to take in air, muddy water filled her mouth. She wanted to scream, but had no voice. She couldn't move because the mud had encased her. Oh no, the ranch had all been a dream. She had become euphoric from the lack of air, and was now trapped. In her mind she cried out desperately, "No. No, please God help me. Please. I don't want to die here alone. No. Noooooooooooo!"
"Elizabeth! Listen to my voice Elizabeth. Breathe! You're safe. It's all right. Come on honey, breathe. Don't do this to me."
The command to breathe invaded her consciousness. Somehow, she knew that she could trust the voice. She opened her mouth and felt cool air enter her lungs. The mud was now gone. Instead of the wetness, she could feel something warm wrapped around her. The warmth shifted around her and she could feel herself being pulled into an embrace. She was being slowly rocked, which was helping her to calm down and breathe more evenly.
The voice spoke again, "Can you hear me Elizabeth? It was only a dream. You're safe in your bed."
The warmth became strong arms holding her, and a broad chest in which her head was buried. Tentatively she asked, "Caleb?"
"Yes, it's me."
"Oh Caleb, it was terrible." Her voice came out in sobs, as she started to cry into his chest. "I couldn't breathe. I was trapped in the mud. No one had come to save me."
"Shhhhh. It's O.K., you're here safe with me now. Nothing is going to happen to you." He continued to rock her and murmur that she was safe and sound. Eventually, her crying subsided and all that could be heard was a few sniffles.
"Oh Caleb, I'm so sorry. I cried all over your shirt." She raised her hand, and touched the wet spot on his chest where her tears had fallen.
"I don't care if you blow your nose into my shirt, as long as you're all right. You really scared me just now. Your nightmare was so bad that you had stopped breathing."
"Looks like I owe you my life again, Mr. Smith," she whispered into his chest.
He chuckled softly. "Luckily for you, I'm having a two- for-one special on rescues this week." His chin was resting on her head now and she could feel his smile against her hair as he spoke. She appreciated his attempt to lighten her mood after that awful nightmare.
He released his embrace and moved his hands to her arms. Moving her away from him enough so he could look into her face, he asked, "Better?"
"Yes, thank you," she said, looking shyly into her lap.
She then felt his fingers touch her chin and lift her eyes to meet his. She could dimly make out his face in the moonlight filtering in through the window. She felt as if his dark eyes could look straight into her soul. "Are you sure you're all right?" he asked.
"Truthfully, I think I need you to continue that hug," she replied. Without hesitation Caleb drew her back into his embrace. Her hands were clutching one of his arms, and the side of her face rested against his chest. She held on to him like he was her life preserver. Her eyes were tightly shut as she sat there silently in his arms, drawing from his strength to dispel her fears.
She didn't know how long she sat there on her bed, surrounded by Caleb's strength and warmth. It was a moment. It was an eternity. Finally, in a whisper she said, "Some world famous adventurer I am. It's not like that's the first close call I've had. I'm sorry I fell apart like that on you."
"Don't be silly. That was a pretty harrowing experience. When you had your other 'close calls', I have to assume that you were able to work out for yourself how to get out of them." Liz could hear a slight edge in his voice when he said 'close calls'. He continued, "But this time, you had no way out for yourself. From what you told me, at some point you had thought you died. I think it all just caught up with you, that's all. It's O.K., everyone gets scared now and again."
"Do you?" she asked.
"Of course I do. In fact, I was terrified just a few minutes ago. You just scared the heck out of me just now. I didn't know what to do; I thought I was going to lose you. I wouldn't have been …" He then stopped what he was saying for a moment as if to compose himself. "It would have been terrible to lose you before I really got to know you." He sounded almost embarrassed to her as he spoke his last sentence.
"Think you want to try to lay down again?" he asked.
It was several seconds before she said, "Sure."
He carefully helped her lay back down, and then covered her with the quilt. "If you need anything, I'm just down hall."
He was about to get up when Liz said, "Caleb, wait! I, um,… I didn't, you know, want to …"
"Be alone right now," he finished for her.
"Well, yeah," she confirmed.
"It's O.K., my little world famous adventurer. I'll sit here until you fall asleep."
Suddenly feeling shy about asking him. "Oh, I couldn't ask you to do that. I was just being silly. Go back to bed, I'll be fine," she told him in the best confident voice she could muster.
"It's all right. It won't be any trouble at all. I bet you'll fall asleep in just a few minutes. It's been a long 24 hours for you." With that, he seated himself on the corner of the bed, and rested his back on the headboard. Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes as if to sleep.
"Yes Elizabeth," he replied, his eyes still closed.
"Are we friends now?" she asked him.
"Yes, I believe that we are."
"Then I want you to know something."
He opened his eyes and said, "Sure, what?"
"I just wanted you to know that you can talk to me about anything. No matter how difficult it may be. I can be there for you, too. I don't want you to think that you have to take the whole world on your shoulders, now that you have a friend." Her voice was becoming softer and softer as she began to slip into sleep once again.
She felt him place a hand on her shoulder as he said, "Thanks, I appreciate that." She smiled inside herself as she could hear the sincerity in his voice. She then surrendered herself to a peaceful sleep. This time, it was not from the magic of the quilt, but from the refuge she'd found in this man.
A loud sound invaded Liz's sleep. She bolted upright in the bed, startled to consciousness by the sound. "What the …?" The sound pierced the morning once again. It sounded like a … it was a rooster! Liz looked at the clock on the desk and saw that it was 6:00 am. Images of turning the rooster into 'Chicken Kiev' came to mind.
'I should have guessed, of course, that a Rooster would be waking me up,' she thought. 'An alarm clock would be way too normal. Well, might as well get up since Caleb has probably already *done the chores* and *slopped the hogs*. I need caffeine. I wonder if caffeine is too modern a convenience for Mr. Smith.'
As if on cue, a smell invaded her awareness. The smell became stronger and she identified the rich aroma of brewing coffee. Like a child following the Piped Piper, she got out of bed and followed the smell. Entering the kitchen, she saw Caleb at the stove preparing breakfast. Sensing her entry, he turned to her and asked, "So how are you feeling this morning? I presume that Chester woke you up."
Liz simply stated, "Coffee." Actually it was more of a command than a statement.
Caleb turned and poured a mug for her. "Cream, sugar, lemon, black… ?"
"Black, no use in diluting the caffeine," she answered.
She took the coffee from him and immediately began to sip it. Surprisingly, it was at a perfect temperature for drinking. After a few sips, she realized that she had come out here directly from her bed. He, on the other hand, looked like he had been up for some time now. He was dressed in what, she guessed, were his working clothes. He had jeans on with a dark colored tee shirt. Over the tee shirt he wore a flannel shirt which he had left unbuttoned. His sleeves were rolled up his forearms. 'Very strong looking forearms.' And she was dressed in… an oversized sweatshirt.
"Oh lord, I must look terrible. I just stumbled out here directly from bed when I smelled your coffee," she said to him apologetically.
With a very serious voice, he said, "Don't underestimate the appeal of a women wearing only a man's sweatshirt." Then turning to the stove, he said, "If you'll sit down, I'll have some pancakes ready in a minute."
Liz's breath caught in her throat for a moment. 'Did he really just flirt with me?' she asked herself. 'Naw, he was probably just trying to be polite, so I wouldn't feel bad coming out here like this. Well, there are ways to find out. Maybe if all goes well today, I can really test his resolve tonight,' she thought with an evil grin.
Composing herself, she walked to the table and answered, "Pancakes would be lovely."
True to his word, two minutes later, he presented to her a plate of pancakes and a bottle of syrup. "These are homemade, aren't they?" she asked.
"Well I didn't grind the wheat myself, but yes, I basically made them from scratch. Tell me what you think."
She took her first bite of the pancakes. As expected, they were many times better than anything she had ever had in her life before. By the time she had to leave him, she would never be able to eat an instant meal again. With that thought, she felt a sadness creep up on her. The thought of leaving him someday felt like she would be giving up something precious. How could one man affect her in such a short time? It was like magic. In fact, this whole place was like a fairy tale. And she was the princess sent to save the lonely knight. 'Well it is the 22nd century.'
"You don't like them?" she heard.
She blinked at him, rejoining the real world. Her thoughts had frozen her for a moment, the fork still hovering near her mouth. "Yes, they're great. Fantastic. The best ever. I'll never eat one out of a box again. Did you say you actually ground the wheat to make these? Does wheat grow in Montana?" She was staring at him with a wide-eyed expression.
"Maybe next time you should take a little cream in that coffee and dilute the caffeine," he said, wearing his best mischievous grin.
A shy smile came to her. "I think maybe you're right. The pancakes are great, thanks." She thought to herself, 'If feeding me pancakes has this effect on me, what effect will he have if he… Forget it, I'm not even going to go there this early in the morning.' Willing herself to eat, she dug into the pancakes with abandon.
Three pancakes and two cups of coffee (the second with cream) later, she declared herself full and ready to tackle any and all bad guys.
"Good," he said. "I'm going to find the horses and get them ready. You can take the time to freshen your clothes in the washer unit before we go out for the day. Hopefully, when we get back to the SUV, we'll be able to retrieve any luggage you had in there."
"Sounds good to me," she replied. "You want me to clean the dishes?"
"No, I can get them. You can start…" Caleb stopped speaking for a moment and appeared to be thinking about something. He blinked and said, "You know that would be great. I'm going out now and find the horses. Be right back." With that, he left through the door in the kitchen.
'Well, nothing like a man who can make snap decisions,' she thought. With an amused laugh, she started to wash ('hand wash,' she thought indignantly) the dishes and the frying pan. With that done, she retrieved her clothes and popped them into the washer unit and set it for 'quick cycle'. After freshening herself up in the bathroom, she got her clothes out of the washer and got dressed.
Stepping out the kitchen door, she decided it was warm enough to forego the sweatshirt. She then made her way to the stable to find Caleb. Reaching the stable, she found two horses drinking together from a trough. The bigger of the two was all black, without a hint of markings on his body. The smaller one was tan, with a blondish mane. Her legs had white markings near her hoofs. "So, you guys must be Midnight and Moonbeam." They both lifted their heads and looked at her, as if to answer her.
"Don't tell me you guys can actually understand me? That would be too weird. Not that the last couple of days haven't been a little strange. So I guess that a couple of horses who can understand English would be par for the course." The horses looked quizzically at her, with their heads tilted at an angle. Then they looked at each other for a moment, giving each other the equine equivalent of a shrug, and went back to drinking. Liz looked at the horses, with her arms crossed, shaking her head slightly.
She then felt something touch her at the edge of her consciousness. A presence. Something familiar. The feeling grew stronger and stronger until, when she finally heard his voice behind her, she was not startled at all. "So I see you've met the kids," she heard him say.
"Yes," she replied. "We were just talking."
"You too?" he asked. "I thought it was just me. I swear when I talk to them, they look like they listen and can understand me."
"Caleb, at this point I would be surprised if they didn't understand me."
Caleb looked at her with a puzzled look. Liz, choosing to ignore his confusion, asked, "So, when do I start bonding with Miss Moonbeam?"
"Right now," he answered. He called out the horses' names and made a clicking noise with his mouth, which caused both horses to move towards him. As Midnight reached him, Caleb placed his hand on the side of Midnight's jaw and began to gently rub it. Moonbeam came up to Caleb and tried to force his other hand onto her face. After a moment, Caleb complied and was now petting both of the horses. "Horses are very noble and empathic creatures. They can sense your moods. So if you're hesitant with them, they will be the same with you. Don't be intimated by their size, just respect their power."
Caleb reached into his shirt pocket and removed three sugar cubes. "Now, try to call Moonbeam to you. Call out her name and make a soft clicking sound with your mouth. Hold the sugar cubes in your open palm in front of you. When she doesn't come right away, move slowly towards her, while holding out the sugar in front of you."
Liz called for Moonbeam and then did the best impression of the sound Caleb had made earlier. She was concentrating totally on the horse, unsure of what to expect next. "Don't worry, " he said. "It might take a while for her to start to trust you. It usually takes a few days, but maybe she'll warm up to …" Caleb stopped speaking as Moonbeam looked right at Liz and slowly made her way over to her. Moonbeam then gently lower her mouth to Liz's open palm and ate all three sugar cubes. Liz reached up her other hand and petted Moonbeam in the same manner as Caleb had done. Caleb finally managed to get out, " I'll be…"
Liz looked at Moonbeam like a little girl who had gotten the pony she had always asked for at Christmas. She felt Caleb moving next to her. "That was truly remarkable. I never seen Moonbeam warm up to somebody immediately like that before. I got her from an owner who used to beat her, so she is naturally very wary of strangers. She must think you are very special."
"And I like her already too. She has good taste." Liz's smile lit up the morning. She had Caleb (and Moonbeam, of course) to thank for another wonderful experience.
Caleb laughed at her remark. "Well it looks like the 'bonding' portion of our lesson is done. Next lesson is riding her without killing yourself. We need to get to the stable so we can saddle the horses. You might as well lead Moonbeam there." With that, he placed his hand gently on Midnight's mane and started to lead him to the stable. Liz copied his technique and followed Caleb with Moonbeam beside her.
Upon entering the stable, Caleb gave Midnight a pat on the neck, and went to a saddle that was sitting on a stand. Beside it, on a second stand, was a smaller version of the saddle. He looked over his shoulder at Liz and said, "I'll tack up both horses today. We'll leave teaching you that for another day."
"And what exactly is tacking?" Liz asked. She was giving him the 'like I'm suppose to understand that' look.
Caleb smiled a little and said, "It's just tack up, not 'tacking'. Maybe I should have said saddle up. Here, I'll show you. Caleb first got the blanket, which was lying on top of the saddle, and threw it over Midnight's back. He then put on and secured Midnight's bridle. He moved back to the stand and grabbed the saddle. He placed it on the blanket on Midnight's back and then spent the next few minutes securing various straps. Midnight stood there patiently during the entire routine. Caleb then repeated the procedure on Moonbeam with the smaller saddle.
"Ever been on a horse before, Dr. Ellington?" he asked.
"Do pony rides at Christmas time count?".
"I don't think so. We better start with the basics. When you mount Moonbeam, you want to make sure you're in a clear area so she doesn't try to move. Horses are always very aware of their surroundings, and if they see something they don't like, they will try to move away from it. Keep light control on her head by loosely holding the reins in your left hand. Now some differ on this, but what I like to do is to grasp the saddle horn with my left hand, while keeping the reins in the same hand. Make sure that there's plenty of slack. Then place your left foot in the stirrup. Now you propel yourself up with your right leg and use your left leg to help raise yourself into the saddle. Finish off by swinging your right leg over and sit down." He demonstrated the whole process to her on Midnight. His movement was graceful, with no wasted motion. "I just reverse the motion to get down." He got down from Midnight with the same easy motion.
Caleb walked over to her and asked, "Ready to try?" He looked over at Moonbeam as said softly, "Be gentle with her, girl, it's her first time."
'O.K., no problem,' Liz thought. 'I can do this. Besides she likes me.' Liz's heartbeat started to speed up and her breathing became labored. She tentatively took the reins in her hand. Caleb touched her hand and adjusted them to the proper position for her. She looked at him and gave him a shaky smile. Taking a big breath, she placed her hand on the saddle horn and her left foot in the stirrup. She mentally counted to three and launched herself up onto the saddle. She triumphantly felt her right leg swing over the saddle. Triumph turned quickly to panic as she couldn't stop her momentum and fell off the opposite side.
Her downward plummet was halted as Caleb caught her in his arms. He stood there for several seconds not moving, holding Liz. He looked at her, seemingly to study her face. Finally he managed to get out, "Thought I would, you know, um, spot you. Some people have trouble with the timing the first time."
"I guess I should try again," she said to him, slightly out breath.
"Yes, of course," he replied as he set her down gently. He brought her back to the left side of Moonbeam and began to explain to her the timing of getting into the saddle. They spent the next 30 minutes getting Liz comfortable mounting and dismounting Moonbeam. After she could successfully get on Moonbeam without help (and avoiding killing herself), she started her lessons on getting Moonbeam to actually move for her.
Caleb patiently spent the rest of the morning teaching Liz how to get Moonbeam into her basic gaits and how to give her commands with the reins. He explained the difference among the 'walk', 'trot', 'canter', and 'gallop', demonstrating them on Midnight. During her lessons, Liz's attention would sometimes falter, as she thought about the feeling of being held by him. The closeness of him seemed to touch something deep inside herself. She wasn't blind. She could see that she was affecting him as well. But he was trying to resist out of that sense of guilt he had spoken of. She wasn't sure about his age, but even the high end of her 'guesstimate' range would put him in his early 50's. Which would mean that his wife had died relatively young. She could only imagine what it would be like to love someone so much and then lose them. For the other half of you to be taken from you. It was one of those experiences that one could never really understand without actually going through it.
There was one thing she was certain of though: his wife would not have wanted him to spend the rest of his life alone as he had chosen. She had this image of his wife standing in heaven, with her arms crossed and tapping her foot impatiently on the ground. She would be scolding him from her perch in the clouds for being so thick- headed and thinking that he could never find happiness again. Liz found herself agreeing with the apparition that she had created.
Caleb and Liz continued the lessons all through the morning. By lunch time, she could coax Moonbeam into a walk and a slow trot. She was now able to get her to turn into the general direction that Liz wanted. Liz often had the feeling that Moonbeam was being patient with her, and could almost sense the horse's amusement at her.
After a tiring morning, Liz declared that she was ready for lunch. They rode back to the house, where they dismounted their horses. Caleb then showed Liz how to pull up the stirrups, so they wouldn't bother the horse when the rider was gone.
"I didn't think that riding would be so tiring," Liz said as she finished with her stirrups. "I hope you've got something good for lunch. I'm so hungry, I could eat a …". Liz stopped herself by covering her mouth with her hand. Without moving her head, she glanced over at Moonbeam, who was eyeing Liz with an eerily suspicious look in her eyes. "…a lot of food right now," she finished.
Liz heard Caleb stifle a laugh. He then climbed the stairs to go into house through the kitchen door. "Hey, don't you have to tie them to a post or something?" she asked.
Without turning around, he replied, "Naw, they'll stick around here while we're inside. Besides it'll give them a chance to go somewhere and talk in private if they want." With that, he walked inside the house.
Liz smiled to herself. 'That's nice of him,' she thought. She walked up the steps to the kitchen door. Just as her hand touched the doorknob, she stopped and thought, 'Talk in private?' She turned around to look at the horses. They had moved close to each other, and their noses were softly touching. 'He wasn't kidding,' she thought. She quickly turned back around, feeling like she was intruding on a private conversation. She entered the kitchen to see Caleb contemplating the contents of the 'fridge'.
Without looking up, he asked, "How about sandwiches?"
"Sure, that'll be great," she responded. "Need any help?"
"No, I can get it. Do you want something with meat, or something with vegetables?"
"Yes," she answered.
"O.K., I get it. Your hungry. I'll have them ready in a jiff."
"You know, I work out pretty regularly," she stated as she sat slowly down at the table. A small grunt escaped from her mouth. "But I think, tomorrow I'm going to need a wheelchair to get around. I didn't even know I had the some of the muscles I used this morning."
"A common complaint from first time riders. Your body will adapt to the horse soon enough. I have some ointment you can rub into your muscles tonight. It'll keep you from being so sore in the morning."
Her evil side chose that moment to assert itself. "Does that mean you won't give me my rub down yourself?" After a few seconds of obvious contemplation, Caleb said, "Considering some of the places where you'll need the ointment, I'd probably get slapped if I tried to do it for you."
'Wanna bet?' Liz thought to herself. Outwardly though, she merely chuckled at Caleb's comment. She knew that inside this strong, gentle man, there were still broken pieces of a heart that needed to be mended. She didn't need to push him right now. She had dealt with many different cultures over the last seven years. Seen many different ways to approach life. But a common thing amongst people everywhere was that a pain like his was slow to heal. Especially for a person with a devoted, caring heart. And she would kill herself first before she would cause this man anymore pain. So, she promptly told her inner evil twin to behave herself for the rest of the day.
A few minutes later, Caleb presented her with a combination ham and veggie sandwich. It was, of course, delicious. During the course of the lunch, they talked to each other about a variety of things which held their mutual interest. Liz was amazed by how much knowledge Caleb seemed to possess. There was no subject that she brought up that Caleb couldn't speak to. She was also flattered to find out that he had read not just some of her books, but all of them. His worldly knowledge was at odds with the image of the isolated rancher she first had. Caleb proved more and more the paradox to her.
They were deep in the middle of another 'discussion'. Caleb was disagreeing with her on a point, which, of course, meant, to her, that he was wrong. "What I was saying…" Caleb continued with his point, " is that Kyle and Martha were instrumental in the peace accords of the time. But if they weren't there, then someone, or some group, would have filled the void. It didn't take Superman and Powergirl to negotiate a peace treaty, just decent caring people—of whom there were plenty a hundred years ago."
"Yes, but the inspiration they gave the world was a major catalyst, which sparked people to pursue the peace plan," she countered. "Especially after they revealed their true identities to the world to prove that they were as much a part of this world as anyone."
"Still," he said, "I don't think that you need super powers to inspire people to do what is right."
She then smiled, and played her trump card. "What about the sacrifice of Clark Kent?"
"I think people made too much of what he did," stated Caleb.
"Are you kidding? First, he comes forward during the centennial celebration at EPRAD, and reveals that he is still alive. Kyle Kent later said how much it embarrassed Clark to have people celebrate the hundredth anniversary of his first appearance as Superman. And then he pleads the world for peace, both as Clark Kent and as Superman. Many of the world leaders who were undecided at the time said that his speech convinced them to sign the treaty. I saw the videos of his speech. I watched him on the recording slowly ascend to the podium. At 127 years old, age may have taken its toll on him, but he was still Superman. He still couldn't stand by and not help."
She paused for a moment to take a breath and continued, "Then of course he discovered the anti-matter explosive. As old as he was, he still found the strength to pick up the bomb and fly it into space. They say that the resulting explosion was brighter than the moon, despite the fact that he had flown it 40,000 miles away from the earth. Even a Superman couldn't survive that. He saved the earth again, but this time at the cost of his life. If he hadn't done it, the entire east coast of the United States would have been destroyed."
Caleb seemed to contemplate her argument for a moment. Staring into fields outside his windows, he softly said, "He just did what he had to do. Anyone in his position would have done the same."
"I beg to differ!" she exclaimed. "Clark Kent was a great man and he saved millions of people that day. More than that, he inspired people to become better human beings. The followers of Chang Lee Khan dethroned him after he admitted to planting the bomb. They said they were inspired by the final noble words and deeds of the last son of Krypton."
He got up and walked to the window. He placed his hand on the glass and continued to stare off into the distance. Still speaking softly, he said, " 'There are no great men. Only ordinary men who rise to extraordinary circumstances'. A U.S. general during World War II said that of the men who, day in and day out, were on the front lines defending us. I believe that everyone, every good person, makes a difference in the world. The people who get noticed are the ones who just happen to perform the spectacular stuff."
He quietly started to clean the dishes off the table. Liz wasn't sure what to say next. She was frustrated that he couldn't see her point, nor share her respect for Clark Kent. But he spoke with such conviction, that she couldn't think of any rebuttal to his words. Her curiosity was now in overdrive. She yearned to know what experiences had brought him to this place in his life. To feel as he did.
One thing was certain. Whatever his motivation for his opinions on Superman, it was not from jealousy. It was from something deeper. Something that happened to him, either before or after his wife had died. She wanted, no needed, to know what that was. And she was willing to spend the rest of her life finding out.
Caleb had just finished the dishes and indicated that they should try riding the horses to where the SUV was stuck. He then looked out the window, appearing to concentrate on something outside. "Elizabeth, why don't you go out and check the horses. They're probably hanging out at the water trough. I've got to use the, um…". He made a vague gesture toward the hallway.
"Oh, sure," said Liz. "Exactly what I am supposed to be looking for when I 'check' the horses?"
"Just, you know, make sure that they have enough water. I'll be right back." With that, he took off through the kitchen door down the hallway.
"So, what I am supposed to do, ask them if they've had enough to drink?" she shouted after him. 'Must have a weak bladder,' she thought. Shaking her head, she turned to go through the kitchen side door. Outside she did, indeed, find the horses taking a drink from the trough in front of the stable.
"So, Moonbeam, ready for fun and adventure on the open range?" Moonbeam ignored her and continued to drink. "Not listening to me now, huh? Just like kids, they never listen to you when you want them to."
She walked up to Moonbeam and started to absentmindedly stroke her neck. She began to think about how it would be to raise children on the ranch. 'Of course he would have to compromise and install some video and computer equipment for the kids. And that refrigerator is cute, but not very practical. I wonder how big that spare bedroom is in the back of the house?' Her mind leapt from one home improvement project to the next as she mentally adjusted the house to suit her for the expected family needs.
She then stopped herself. 'Good grief! I've only been with this man for two days and I'm already planning out how to raise our kids here. I swear that man has scrambled my brains. Speaking of which, where is he?'
She made her way back to the house. Going inside, she walked through the kitchen and made her way to the back of the house. When she got to the bathroom, she saw that it was empty. She walked further and went to Caleb's bedroom. She peeked in and saw that he wasn't there either. Now perplexed, she went back out to the living room and exited the house through the glass doors. 'Where did he go? It's not like there's a lot of places he could hide. Maybe he went this way and I missed him.'
She went back to the stables and found the horses still standing there. Scowling, she entered the stable and looked for him there. He wasn't there either. She was actually starting to get worried now. The people who were trying to find Superman are not very nice. She wouldn't put it past them to kidnap or even kill to get what they wanted. Frantic now, Liz shouted for him. "Caleb! Caaaa…leb!"
She had the same feeling that she had experienced before, and she spun around to find Caleb running up to her.
"Elizabeth, are you all right?"
"No! I mean, yes. I mean where were you?" She was giving him a look that said 'I'm glad you're all right, so now I can kill you.'
Looking a little sheepish, he said, "I'm sorry. I was just on the other side of the stable. So are you ready to go? We better get going if we want to have enough daylight to make it to the SUV."
Liz blinked at the sudden change in subject and said, "Sure. I guess we should go."
'O.K. girl, calm down. You're just getting paranoid. The bad guys don't even know I'm here.'
She could tell Caleb was looking at her as they walked over to the horses. She stole a glance at him and saw the worried expression on his face. 'Must be worried about me after that outburst,' she thought.
They got the horses, mounted, and started out in the direction that Caleb said would take them to the SUV. Caleb snapped his fingers and said, "I forgot to tell you. I got my comm unit and gave a call to Jeb. He's going to take his personal hovercraft out to meet us at the SUV. I told him what happened, and I think I calmed him down a little. He did say he'd probably forgive you anyway. Something about being a sucker for pretty eyes."
Liz smiled a little at the comment. "Really? So, is Jeb a discerning critic of women's eyes, or he just says that to every young woman who comes along?" She was asking the question, more to poke a little fun at Jeb, than anything else. Therefore, she was surprised to hear Caleb's response.
"Jeb has been around a long time, and seen a lot of things. He doesn't make comments like that frivolously." He looked straight ahead while making the comment, as if embarrassed by what he had said.
They rode on in silence for several minutes after that. Liz was beginning to think that maybe tonight would be the time to broach subjects of a more personal nature with him. But not right now, too much was happening at the moment. So she purposely steered the conversation to mundane topics of general interest.
They rode for a couple of hours talking about everything and nothing. She was surprised that he was able to discuss recent current events with her. She had the impression that he had ignored the news. 'Must listen to the radio a lot,' she thought. Liz then asked him, "So what do you think of the Mayflower II launch next week?"
"I think that they are very brave to make that sacrifice to be the first pioneers to a new star. When they wake up from suspended animation, the world they left behind will be gone, aged over a hundred years. I hear that there's some speculation that Earth scientists may be able to make the breakthrough in some kind of 'warp' drive and catch up with the colonists before they finish their journey."
"I couldn't even imagine what it would be like," said Liz. "To have to sleep for a hundred years like that. I was sort of skeptical that suspended animation could actually work. It would make me real nervous to have to do it myself."
"It's really an amazing technology. I read up on its early development work done at the beginning of the century. Have you read anything about Dr. Morton and his experiments?"
"No, not really," replied Liz.
"Well, the first large mammal that he successfully froze and recovered was his pet cat."
"Really?" Liz asked. "I don't think I could have experimented on my own pet."
"Well he didn't do it on purpose. It seems that he was experimenting on small mice at the time. He had just placed one in his experiment chamber and turned around to go to the control panel. Before the door on the chamber closed, his pet cat — Toby I think his name was — had jumped into the chamber. Without knowing that his cat was in the chamber, he started the suspended animation process. He was actually fairly sure he was going to have a breakthrough that day."
Liz was now listening to his story with rapt attention.
"When the process was completed, he returned to the chamber to discover that his cat was inside. He was very distraught. Apparently, he was very attached to Toby. He immediately got the chamber open and removed Toby. He wanted to try to revive Toby, but still hadn't worked out the details of a complete revival process."
"That's when his assistant came up with an idea to revive Toby. The assistant proposed that they introduce a very small amount of a mildly toxic substance into Toby, after he had warmed up some, to 'shock' his system into waking up."
"They looked around for something appropriate to use. While looking, Dr. Morton found the backup generator in the side room. It still worked on gasoline. He thought that the gasoline would be perfect. So he got an eyedropper and extracted a few drops of gasoline out of the generator. After 30 minutes they figured that Toby was about ready, so Dr. Morton put a few drops of the gasoline in Toby's mouth. Nothing happened for a full minute."
By this time both of them had stopped the horses for a break. Caleb paused to take a drink of water from his canteen.
"Then what! What happened to Toby?" Liz demanded
"Oh, well, after a minute, Toby's eyes suddenly shot open. He got up and jumped down from the table and started running around the table. I've seen the video Dr. Morton made, it's really quite amazing. Anyway, Toby made about 20 laps around the table when he suddenly stopped and fell over."
Liz looked sadly at Caleb and said, "Oh, poor Toby. He died."
"No," said Caleb. "He just ran out of gas."
For a few seconds, Liz looked at him with a stunned expression on her face while Caleb just sat there with a small, yet mischievous grin on his. Her expression slowly changed into one that could be only described as silent fury.
Through narrowed eyes, she slowly said, "You are the lowest of the low. I started caring for the cat. I was going to cry for that cat. You made that whole thing up just to tell that one stupid joke. You are a dead man. You're walking, um riding, around now. But not for long. You will not get away with this."
Caleb froze for a moment, looking at her serious response to his joke, and then burst out laughing. Which infuriated Liz even more. 'He thinks he's so cute, telling that idiotic joke. Well, Mr. Innocent Rancher has got another thing coming.'
After looking at him laughing for a moment, she thought, 'It was kind of funny, now that I think of it. And he did look a little cute after he told the punch line. He's still going to get punished though.'
Caleb had gotten control of his laughing and was able to speak again. "I'm sorry. You would not believe how long I've been waiting to set someone up for that joke. And you gave me the '…and Toby died' straight line perfectly. It's good to see that you were such a good sport about it too. It just made the experience perfect."
Liz looked at the huge smile on Caleb's face. Something lit up inside her and she decided that seeing that smile was worth getting caught by his joke. Maybe she'd skip his punishment. Having another evil thought about tonight, she said to herself, 'Maybe not.'
As they came rode closer to the site of the SUV accident, Liz discussed her theories on the last descendant of Superman. "I think that he's the grandson of Clark, Jr. (CJ, as his parents called him). CJ really hated the whole Superhero thing, and never donned a costume. He pretty much disappeared after his wife and children were killed in that vehicular accident. Matthew told me that there were stories of Clark, Jr. creating a whole new persona for himself and rebuilding his life somewhere else."
"That wasn't in your book," said Caleb.
"I know, but I hate to put things in my books that I can't substantiate. Although I did find a pattern of "Guardian Angel" stories in Australia about the time he dropped out of society. What I think happened is that CJ met someone new in Australia and started a new family. Let me see…"
Liz started to do some mental calculations. "Jon Kent lived to about 150. Some scientist I interviewed from Star Labs said that if Clark Kent hadn't been subjected to that life force device right after he got married, he may have lived to 280 or more. As it was, he aged a little bit faster than his sons." Liz was silent for a moment as she pulled more facts out of her head.
"I think that CJ must have got married around 65 or so, meaning that his second set of children would have been born around 2065. Giving those kids about 30 years to have children of their own, would put the birth of Clark's great grandchildren, through CJ, at around 2095. Which would make them just shy of a hundred years old. Less, if the grandkids waited longer before they had children. So what do you think?"
"I think that's interesting," Caleb replied cautiously. "However, it's all theory. How do you make the jump to a super powered man operating out of Montana?"
"Intuition," she stated confidently.
"Ah, I see," he replied.
"I can hear the scoffing tone in that voice of yours, Mr. Smith. But you have to admit that I could…" Liz stopped talking as Caleb raised up his hand to her and put his index finger of his other hand to his lips.
He moved next to her and whispered, "The SUV is just over that small hill, but I can hear someone else fooling around out there, and I know that it's not Jeb." Liz wondered exactly how he could know that, but followed his lead.
They both got down off their horses and crept quietly toward the area of where the SUV was buried in the mud. As they came up over the hill, they saw a common looking hovercraft parked on the dirt road. Over the shoulder, there was a man standing on top of the SUV's roof, cutting a hole in it with a laser torch. They could see that the vehicle had sunken deep enough so that the watery mud was within a few inches of the roof on the inside.
Caleb walked up to the shoulder and cleared his throat loudly. The man cutting through the roof looked up at Caleb startled, and quickly stood. He took off his goggles and stared at Caleb without saying anything. He was dressed in casual city clothes, inappropriate for the area and the work he was performing. He looked to be in his late 40's and was not exactly the athletic type.
"Mind telling me what you're doing?" Caleb asked.
"If you must know, I'm trying to retrieve some of my personal belongings from this vehicle," the stranger.
"Did you know that you are on my land?" Caleb asked, with a slightly menacing tone.
"No, I didn't. I'm sorry. I got lost a couple of days ago and had an accident. I thought this was just wilderness."
"It is," said Caleb. "But it's my wilderness. Oh, by the way, I was here two nights ago and rescued the driver of this vehicle. It wasn't you."
The stranger scowled at Caleb and reached inside his coat. He pulled out a hand weapon and pointed it at Caleb. "Back up!" he commanded.
Caleb slowly backed up until he was in the middle of the dirt road. The stranger got up to the road and moved very close to Caleb, pointing the weapon at his midsection. At that moment, the stranger seemed to take notice of Liz standing to Caleb's right side. "Ah, Dr. Ellington. So nice to see you. You know we've been looking all over for you. It was kind of you to come here so we can chat."
"You really need someone to write you better dialogue," Caleb said to him. Liz noticed that even though Caleb had a weapon pointed at him, only inches from his body, he didn't display any fear.
"You better shut your mouth! This is no stun weapon I have here. If I pull trigger, there won't be much left of you."
"So I guessed," Caleb replied. "However, you really shouldn't point it at me that way."
"And why not?"
Caleb suddenly pivoted to the left out the line of fire of the weapon. His right arm struck out and he hit the hand of the stranger with the heel of his hand, knocking the weapon to the ground. Without stopping his motion, Caleb continued to pivot until he was facing away from the stranger. Caleb then shot his left leg straight backward and struck the stranger in the stomach, doubling him over. After pausing only a second, Caleb then pivoted another 180 degrees. As he was finishing the turn, Caleb's right foot swung up in an arc and struck the stranger full in the face, knocking him to the ground unconscious.
Caleb looked down at his unconscious opponent and replied in an almost ominous tone, "That's why."
Liz was stunned. It's not that she couldn't believe that he had the skill to do what he just did. It was that he did it with absolutely no fear. His face held no hesitation as he performed the fluid motions, even though a powerful weapon had been aimed at his body. He looked over to her as if sensing her surprise. "I watched a lot of martial arts movies when I was a kid," he stated matter-of- factly with a shrug.
Liz couldn't even respond to that. She had seen entertainment videos where the good guys "beat up" the bad guys. But present society had less and less of that in real life. She had to, once again, reconsider the picture of her rancher. Somehow, he didn't quite add up. It was almost getting to be suspicious.
He then moved over to the stranger and started searching though his pockets. "Let me see who we've got here," Caleb said. "Looks like another visitor from Los Angeles. Must be that new advertising campaign for tourists the governor put out."
'How can he make jokes!' she screamed in her mind. 'A maniac with a gun almost kills us, and he's making jokes. Unbelievable.' Her eyes grew a little wide as she realized that she said the last word aloud.
"What's unbelievable?" Caleb asked. "That he found the SUV, or that I'm making jokes about it?"
'He can't read my mind. He can't read my mind. He can't read my mind. Oh lord I'm in trouble if he can read my mind,' she thought. What she said calmly aloud was, "Both."
"Do you know a Mr. 'George Cannon'?" asked Caleb.
Liz thought a minute. "Doesn't ring a bell."
"I think I'll search his hover." He then reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a small cylindrical comm unit. He held it close to his mouth and said, "Jeb." She heard the soft dinging sound indicating the unit finding Jeb's ID code and signaled his unit. After a moment she could hear, "What?"
"Nice to talk to you again too, Jeb," said Caleb into the unit. "How far out are you?"
"10 minutes, 5 if I put on the afterburners. Trouble?"
"Yeah. Get here as fast as you can. And call the Marshall, tell her I got a dangerous trespasser for her to pick up. Give her the location of the SUV."
"Gotcha. Be there in 5." With that there was a click indicating the end of the connection.
Caleb looked at Liz and said, "Keep an eye out for Jeb. I'm going to search 'Georgy's' hover."
"Sure," Liz answered back. She still was trying to take all of this in. It was one thing to know that there was a conspiracy afoot, but it was another thing to be confronted by men with deadly weapons. She suddenly felt a little cold, not from the wind, but from the enormity of her situation. There were people out there who wanted to kill her, and might have succeeded if not for Caleb. Whatever suspicion she might have of Caleb's life was inconsequential to the fact that he was now her guardian.
She felt a hand touch her shoulder. Instead of startling her, it warmed her. Over her shoulder she could hear Caleb say, "Something is bothering you, isn't it? I shouldn't have been so insensitive a moment ago, and known that this is all very…"
Caleb stopped speaking as Liz turned quickly into his arms and buried her head into his chest. "They want to kill me. They actually want to kill me. They have guns. I've never been this scared before, Caleb. What am I going to do?"
Caleb's arms wrap around her. She felt like his arms protected her from all the evil in the world. She could hear him say softly, "Elizabeth, as long as I have a breath in my body, I will not let you come to any harm."
He said that statement with such confidence, not as if it were a promise, but a fact of life. And she believed him. Just as she believed in gravity, and the wind, and the sun setting tonight. She believed that it was a constant of the universe — he would keep her safe.
"Someone else is approaching," he said. "It's too soon to be Jeb or the Marshall. Go hide in the hover and I'll take care of whoever is coming. If something bad happens, take off and fly due east until you hit a town."
"Caleb, what about you? I'm not leaving you here!" she stated firmly.
"Not time for discussion, get in the hover so I can act without you getting hurt."
"Caleb, I may be scared but I'm not going to run away like a…"
"Go!" commanded Caleb. Then more softly, "Trust me, I'll be fine. Jeb will be here in a minute. All I have to do is stall them until he shows up."
Liz could see, no, feel something in his demeanor that assured her that he did know what he was doing. She quickly slipped into the hover and closed its door. She then slid down in the seat so she couldn't be seen. She watched over the dashboard and saw a second hover, identical to the one she was in, come to a rest near Caleb. A man got out. Not just any man, but "Baldy" himself. He already had a weapon drawn as he got out of the vehicle.
"Afternoon," greeted Caleb. "Can I help you with something?"
Baldy pointed the gun directly at Caleb and, without any humor in his voice, said, "You will tell me exactly what happened here or I will kill you where you stand."
"Sure, if you want me to," Caleb said back to him. "I was just riding along when I found this guy laying on the ground unconscious. I just got finished calling the paramedics, when you showed up. Friend of yours?" Liz was getting nervous at Caleb's 'dumb hick' act. This guy didn't look as stupid as the last guy.
Baldy gave Caleb an ugly smile. "Don't give me that bunch of c
. You will now tell me what you know. I can see that you were riding with someone, since there are two horses over that hill. You wouldn't want me to test that theory by firing this weapon at the other hover over there, would you?"
"No, I wouldn't," Caleb replied evenly. "O.K., I'll tell you everything, but you have to put down that gun first."
"You don't seem to appreciate your position. You will now tell me all you know, or you'll die and I'll find out for myself. Oh, and please invite your guest over here. If I hear even a hint of that hover coming to life, you'll both die immediately."
"O.K., I see your point. Let me get my guest out of the hover first." Caleb made his way over to the hover and opened the door for her. As he reached in to help her out, he whispered, "Whatever happens, stay close to me."
They returned to the middle of the road together. Caleb slipped his arm around Liz. "Where do you want me to start?" asked Caleb. "How about when I found her the other night?" Without waiting for an answer, Caleb went into a detailed account of her rescue and recovery, leaving out the personal details. Liz could see Baldy getting more and more aggravated as Caleb went into meticulous detail describing the events.
"Silence!" he shouted, stopping Caleb mid-sentence. "I only want to know two things: Where is the Kryptonian and where is the globe? Any more stalling will result in her death." He pointed the weapon directly at Liz.
"Then you'll miss the part where your back window gets blown out." Just as Caleb said that, Liz could hear a small bang from behind the man, and the back window of the hover next to him exploded in to a million pieces. Baldy turned quickly, swinging his weapon around to shoot at the source of the sound.
Liz suddenly felt herself shoved gently to one side. She watched Caleb bend over and scoop up a fist sized rock. Without pausing to aim, he flung it sidearm at Baldy. Just as he released the rock, he gave a loud whistle. Baldy turned back around just in time to get the rock squarely between the eyes, knocking him off his feet. He landed on his back, unconscious.
He looked at Liz and asked, "Are you all right? Sorry, I had to improvise all that after I got you out of the hover."
Liz shook her head to indicate that she was fine. She realized that she was much calmer than after the first incident. 'Oh no,' she thought. 'I'm starting to get used to all the weirdness.'
Instead of being scared, she was deciding which was more remarkable: the fact that he knew that the window would explode, or that he could hit Baldy between the eyes with a rock from this distance. Settling on the latter, she declared, "I presume that you were a big fan of the 'David and Goliath' story when you were a kid."
"How did you know?" he asked playfully.
"Wild guess. How about that trick with the window?"
"That was no trick. That was Jacob Earl Buchanan III. Jeb for short." As Caleb said this, an older man walked over to them from behind the hover. He looked to be about sixty-five years old. He was dressed in western clothes with a gray cowboy hat, and had, what she presumed to be, a permanent gray stubble on his face. In his right hand was some kind of long barreled weapon. He was resting the barrel of the weapon on his right shoulder as he walked.
He looked down at Baldy with amusement in his eyes and said to Caleb, "Well, son, I guess you were a 'might' serious when you said trouble. Kinda understated the facts there, boy."
"To tell you the truth Jeb, the facts escalated after I called you."
"Humph!" was all Jeb could say. He then looked up at Liz and said, "You know I should be upset at losing my SUV over there, but I'm too old to get mad about losing material stuff anymore. So what's the story with skinhead over here?"
"It's a long story Jeb," Caleb answered. "Suffice to say that Elizabeth is in danger and I've got to keep her safe."
"Do tell. I take it you have something in mind or you wouldn't have called me here to save your butt."
Not seeming to be affected by Jeb's sarcasm, Caleb said, "My original plan was to retrieve her stuff out of the SUV, but after seeing it, I don't think anything is salvageable. So I came up Plan B. You take Elizabeth into town and see to it that she can pick up a few things she needs to stay for a few days. Make sure you stay with her the whole time and use my credit for all the purchases. I don't want anybody to know that she's there. I'll wait here for the Marshall and get these guys into custody."
"I want to know who Baldy is first," declared Liz.
"Oh, sure." Caleb went over and searched the pockets of the unconscious man. He found a wallet with a license which identified him as Michael Nessman. Another card identified him as part of a law firm in Los Angeles. Caleb also found a comm unit in his coat pocket. Turning off the video screen, he punched the redial button. Liz could see him listening to someone at the other end.
"Yes, is he in right now? This is Mr. Nessman. No? Then would you leave him a message. Tell him that the search has come up empty so far. No, he'll know what I mean. Thank you. Goodbye."
"Let me guess," said Liz. "That was Dr. Risse's office."
"Bingo," Caleb replied, pointing his finger at her.
Caleb continued, "Elizabeth, go with Jeb. Let him in on the whole story. You can trust him with anything. After the Marshall picks these goons up, I'm going to return to the house with the horses. Jeb, take her back to the house after you're done."
Jeb swept his hand out in the direction down the hill and said, "Your chariot awaits, Miss."
"Just a minute Jeb," Liz said. She then walked over to Caleb. "You be careful." She stuck her finger in his chest to emphasis her point. "I don't want you doing anything crazy when I'm gone. And don't give me that look. I can tell you think you can handle anything, but these guys are serious. And I definitely don't want you to get hurt. You still owe me that bedtime story."
Caleb looked at her quietly for a moment and then gently responded. "I promise to be careful, and you'll get your story someday."
Liz realized that her hand had been resting on his chest during their entire exchange. She cleared her throat and removed her hand. She then spun around and looked at Jeb and declared, "Well what are we waiting for? Let's go."
Jeb looked at her with eyebrows raised as she stormed pass him. He shrugged his shoulders and followed her down the hill. At the bottom of the hill, she saw the most dilapidated looking hovercraft she had ever seen in her life. She eyed Jeb suspiciously. "We're going in that?" Even she could hear the disdain in her voice.
She could hear Jeb chuckle at little. "Don't judge a book by its cover, Miss. You think after a couple of days with Caleb, you would have learned that lesson."
Now that Liz thought about it, Jeb was right. If that statement was ever true, it especially applied to Caleb Smith. She followed Jeb to the hover and went to the passenger door. "Open," she commanded the vehicle. After nothing happened, she shouted over to Jeb on the other side, "Hey, my door is locked."
"No it's not, use the door handle."
'Door handle. Of course. Must be a rule in Montana not to use modern technology.' She found what had to be the door handle, and within a few seconds had figured out how to open the door. She got in the hover and sat down in the passenger seat. She watched as Jeb secured his weapon on a mount in the back seat. She examined the interior of the hovercraft for a moment. It was in stark contrast to the exterior appearance of the vehicle. She recognized some of the latest equipment you could put into a hover, and some she didn't recognize at all.
Jeb could tell she was assessing his vehicle and said with a shrug of his shoulders, "I kinda like gadgets."
"No kidding. Is that a real shotgun?" she asked pointing to the back seat.
"Sure is, Miss. United States Army — Winchester model 1200. Pump action, 12 gauge repeating shotgun, with a seven-round tubular magazine, and ghost ring sights. I can even put a bayonet on it if I want."
"You must know that a gun like that is worth a fortune to collectors."
"Haven't really thought much about it. Don't need the money, since I got most of what I need in life." Then under his breath she could hear him say, " 'Cept my SUV."
Feeling guilty, she turned to him and said, "Jeb, I want you know how sorry I am about your SUV."
"I know you are, Miss. The truth of the matter is, I think it'll be worth it if you're affecting Caleb half as much as I think you are." He then turned to the controls and brought the hovercraft to life.
Interested in his comment, she asked, "What do you mean?"
He started the hover in right direction before answering. "I've known that boy near 12 years now. He's strong, brave, and unfortunately has a heart the size of Montana itself."
"Why is that unfortunate?"
"Because the bigger the heart, the harder it is to mend when it's broken. Caleb never spoke of it directly to me, but I could tell he lost someone real special to him before I met him. Men like him,… well when they find that one person, they think it can only happen once to them. Contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of men who do more than spend their time showing how tough they can be. Whoever she was, the sun rose and set for that boy with that woman. Now that she's gone, or left him, he hasn't let anybody else in."
Liz could feel the tightness in her heart again, wishing she could soothe pain for him. With a strained voiced, she whispered, "He told me that his wife died over 12 years ago."
"Well, I'll be…" Jeb exclaimed. "He never shared that with me, and I'm probably the closest thing he has to a friend out here. Yes Ma'am, you must be really affecting him. Worth the price of an SUV to see that, any day of the week." Jeb now had a big grin on his face as he drove the hover.
Jeb became somber for a moment and advised Liz, "Miss, whatever you decide to do, you'll have to take it slow with him. But don't be afraid to take the next step. I've got this feeling about you. I think you're just the tonic he needs to get him to join the 'land of the living' again." With that, Jeb fell silent and concentrated on driving the hover.
Liz, for her part, contemplated her next step. Maybe tonight a gentle push would be in order. Her thoughts were interrupted by a soft beeping from the center console. Jeb pushed a button and spoke into the console, "Jeb here, it's your nickel."
Liz could hear the voice at the other end of the phone say, "Jeb, no one uses nickels anymore. So all you do is confuse people when you say that." It was obviously Caleb.
"And your point?" Jeb countered.
"Never mind. Liz, can you hear me too?"
"Yes Caleb, I can hear you too, go ahead."
"Marshall Evans just picked up Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. They were yelling at her that I was the one who should be arrested, and that I planted all the evidence on them. She said something to them about an obscure Montana law that doesn't require her to feed prisoners anything but bread and water. That, and the mention of leg irons, really shut them up."
Liz was giggling a little now. "I like her already. She said anything else?"
Caleb replied, "Just that Jeb still owes her a dinner out, and he better make good if he doesn't want a lot of speeding tickets." Liz could her Jeb muttering things under his breath like 'dang blasted pushy female.' Liz couldn't help but smile a little. Caleb continued, "So I'm heading back with the horses. Jeb, make sure you feed Elizabeth when you're out. I'm going to check on the herd on the way back so I'll be more than 3 hours."
"Got it boy. Don't worry I'll take real good care of her."
"One last thing," Caleb added. "Mary says if you try to flirt with Elizabeth, there'll be hell to pay with her later." Then he added quietly, "And me too." The connection then went dead.
Liz looked at Jeb with a big grin on her face. "Jeb, you old hound dog, the Marshall is sweet on you, isn't she?"
"Well I keep telling her, I'm too old to start chasing girls again, no matter how pretty they are. She's been after me, darn near a year now, to date her. Like I'm some high school kid who needs to have a sweetheart."
Liz couldn't help but chuckle. "Men are such idiots sometimes. You know that you're in love with her, so just admit it. It makes it easier in the end."
Jeb looked apprehensive now. "It's the end part I'm worried about."
Liz became a little serious and said, "Jeb, you'll do fine. She must see something in you, just the way you are. Down deep." She studied him very closely for a minute. "Somewhere," she said, appearing to continue to be searching for something on him.
Jeb got a little indignant and exclaimed, "Now you're funning me, woman. This is no laughing matter. I ain't got a clue what a fine woman like Mary would want with an old codger like me."
"Jeb, Mary sees something in you that touches her heart. No woman would keep trying to capture the love of a man for so long, if that wasn't true," Liz said very sincerely.
"I know. Go out with her, Jacob. Tell her how you feel. I think the rest is actually easy after that. Just a suggestion though. A shave and a clean shirt wouldn't hurt."
Liz then settled back into her seat, feeling that her job was done here. Talking to Jeb had helped her forget her own fear and the worry of Caleb being out there all alone. After seeing him in action today, she should knew that he could take care of himself. But emotionally she was afraid for him and wanted to be with him. She always thought of herself as a logical person, but these last couple of days had been an emotional roller coaster. 'Must be all this fresh air that's affecting my mind.'
The steady hum of the engine started to lull here into drowsiness. Soon, with illogical thoughts of her favorite rancher churning in her head, she fell asleep.
Liz felt a gentle shaking of her arm. "Miss Elizabeth," she heard through a haze. "Time to get up and spend Caleb's money."
Liz groaned sleepily, "Just two more minutes Dad. I promise to be ready for school in time." Her brain then shifted gears as she heard a laugh that definitely was not her Dad's.
"Come on Sleeping Beauty, time to wake. Since Caleb's not here, all you're getting is a good shaking from me."
Liz, still half asleep, thought to herself, 'Hmmm. Sleeping Beauty. I would love to have Caleb wake me up like that.'
"I bet you would Missy, but he's not here now, so you've got to get up on your own."
Liz's eyes shot open as she realized she had voiced her last thought aloud. She looked at Jeb in panic.
Jeb chuckled and said, "Don't worry Miss Elizabeth, your secret is safe with me."
Liz shook the cobwebs out of her head and stretched the kinks out. "You know Jeb, you can call me Liz if you want. How long was I out?"
"A little over an hour Miss… um Liz."
Liz got out of her seat and Jeb assisted her out of the hover. They were parked in front of a large shopping complex. It was one of those 'natural malls' which used a combination of natural plants and holograms to give shoppers the illusion of being out in the forest. 'The developers must think that makes it more peaceful when the shoppers surrendered their money to the local merchants,' Liz thought. As an anthropologist, Liz was amazed by the cultural fact that in an age wherein people could download holographic images of any object and purchase them through the net, malls still thrived. It seemed that people never lost the desire to feel and touch the objects they wanted to buy. Plus the social experience of 'going to the mall' still existed in the mind set of the culture.
A moving walkway brought Liz and Jeb to the main shopping area. Jeb looked slightly out of place in the polished atmosphere of the mall. In fact, Jeb could have easily just walked through a time machine from the turn of the twentieth century. Liz could feel Jeb's uneasiness at being at the 'mall'. "I sense that you don't come here that often," she said with an impish grin on her face.
"Too dang superficial and fake for my taste. I lean more toward the unspoiled and undeveloped."
"I guess places like this must feel strange to a retired rancher."
Jeb looked at her surprised. "Who said anything about being a rancher. Horses and me don't get along too well. I used to be Spacecraft Engineer for EPRAD. Hell, I think I was involved in some way with at least half of the design of the Mayflower II. I've been working out of my home for the last 15 years up until my retirement two months ago. I live out here because big cities give me the hives."
Liz officially decided that she would have to find another line of work. Seven years in her field obviously gave her no intuition into the true nature of the people around here. Maybe it was just Montana. Wouldn't surprise her if Caleb was really some kind of ex-secret agent on the run from nefarious elements.
She stopped for a moment. 'An ex-secret agent. On the run. That's it. That's why he lives so isolated. And now I just dropped in his lap and ruined his life for him.' She mulled the possibility over in her mind. She turned to Jeb who was looking at some dress shirts on a rack.
"Jeb, is Caleb a former government agent?"
Jeb looked up from the rack and gave Liz with a surprised look. "I don't even think we have people like that anymore. Where did you get an idea like that? I think he was doing social work and some kind of rescue work in the poor areas of Asia before he came here."
"I don't know," Liz said. "The idea just sort of hit me. He doesn't strike me as your typical rancher. Actually he doesn't seem to be your typical anything. I mean he made me these fantastic meals, and he knows martial arts. I didn't really believe that movie remark he made. And where did he get that cat joke from? I already forgave him for that since it made him so happy to pull that on me. But I still think I need to push him a little, even if it's not punishment. He's been so sweet to me, I can't imagine him needing to run from anything. But here he is, living out in the wilderness, cut off from the rest of society. And that's so sad, because he can give so much to people. So he must be running from something. What do you think?"
Jeb stared at her with a blank expression. He then blinked once and said, "I think I lost you after you said 'rancher' the first time." After thinking about it for a minute, he shook his head and said, "Listen, Caleb is just a nice guy who never recovered from his broken heart. The only thing he's running from is himself. Just needs the right person to get him to face life again."
Liz gave out a sigh. "Thanks, Jeb. You know, I believe that you're a better friend to Caleb than you think you are."
"That boy is like a brother to me. Maybe better, since my real brother is a twit." Jeb laughed a little at his own statement. He turned backed to his examination of the shirt rack.
Liz was feeling a little silly now after listening to Jeb. She was just letting her imagination run away from her. She just needed to stop being so suspicious and to trust her feelings.
Jeb and Liz spent the next 2 hours shopping. Jeb even broke down and bought a new dress shirt, 'just because'. After shopping, they ended up eating an "authentic" cheeseburger and fries at a place that supposedly recreated a mid Twentieth Century diner. To Liz's trained archeologist eye, the place was a bad combination of mid and late twentieth century d‚cor. But at least the food was good.
After eating, they made their way back to Jeb's hover. Loading Liz's bags in the back, they then started back toward Caleb's house. During the trip back, Liz filled Jeb in on all of the details of their adventure so far. A little over an hour later, they were pulling up to the house. The sun had already set and she could see some lights on through the windows and skylights.
Jeb helped her out with her bags and walked her to the kitchen door. "Well Jeb, thanks for everything. Remember what I told you. Life is too short to have regrets of missed opportunities." She then leaned over a gave Jeb a small kiss on the cheek.
He started to smile at her, and then got a crotchety look on his face. "Yeah well, you just go on and remember what I told you, young lady." He turned and walked back to his hover. Just before he got in he looked up at her and said, "You take care of him. And make sure he takes care of you." Before she could answer, he jumped in and closed the door. Seconds later, the hover lifted of the ground and shot into the night.
Liz made her way up the stairs and entered the kitchen. "Caleb, I'm home!" she shouted into the house. 'That sounds kind of nice,' she thought. She heard footsteps approach as she dropped her bags on the kitchen table. Caleb entered the kitchen and she turned to greet him.
"So how was your shopping trip? Did you get everything you need?" he asked. Liz thought about how natural this scene was to her. She imagined herself doing this everyday, coming home, telling him about her day, and doing the mundane things that couples do at the end of the day.
"Shopping is always therapeutic to me. I think I'll be able to survive out here for a little while now." She saw Caleb raised one eyebrow and looked over her shoulder at the mountain of bags on the kitchen table. "Sorry to make you have to rough it," he said dryly.
"I'll get by, I suppose," she answered with a grin on her face. "At least until next week when you take me shopping again." His expression took on a look of mild panic, which made her giggle a little. "Don't worry, I'm sure we'll have the bad guys in jail by then, so I'll be able to use my own credits."
"I see you still need to work on that self confidence thing," he said sarcastically. "So did Jeb feed you?"
"Yep, he sure did." 'Yep? Oh no, I'm starting to talk like them now.' "Um… thanks for asking."
"I do have a little news for you," he said.
"I know these guys in Washington who have access to the citizen database. They ran our friends' names and fingerprints through the database and found that they don't officially exist. Which means that somebody very high up wiped their data, including all backups, from the database."
"Great, now it's a national conspiracy. Next thing I know the President will be in on it."
"No, that's not his style," replied Caleb. "Also it seems that Dr. Risse has taken a leave of absence. Not even his family knows where he is right now. I've let the L.A.P.D. in on his connection to the two goons that Mary has in custody."
Liz was curious how he knew "guys" in Washington, but that could wait for later. "So now that we've completed Plan B, what's the next plan?" she asked.
Caleb thought for a moment and said, "Well it's late, and it's been a long day. You should get that ointment on you and then get some sleep. I'm going to groom the horses, and clean up a little before I go to sleep. I have an idea where to pick up your search tomorrow."
Liz was a little disappointed since she was hoping to spend a little time with Caleb outside of life threatening situations. But she did feel a little worn out, so he was probably right. She was beginning to feel the effects of the day's riding in her muscles, so she knew she better use that ointment soon. "Alright. I'll go get ready for bed, right after I put my stuff away."
She moved to the table to retrieve her bags. Caleb came over to help. She again felt the naturalness of doing simple things like this together. They carried her bags into her room and placed them on the bed. "I'll just be outside if you need me," Caleb said, as he indicated over his shoulder with his thumb. "If you need anything, just shout. The ointment you need is on the desk."
He continued to look at her for a few more seconds. Without breaking eye contact, he said softly, "I guess I better let you get ready for bed."
She couldn't take her eyes off of him either. She whispered back to him, "I guess you should." Finally he broke the eye contact with her and turned to leave the room. Before he could completely leave the room, she said, "Don't forget to come back to tuck me in." Her comment made him pause at her door for a second. He then left without saying anything else.
'So much for a gentle push.' She dug into her bags and put away her purchases in the closet and dresser. She then laid out the new pajamas on her bed and looked for the ointment. Finding it, she undressed herself and sat down to apply it. The ointment felt good as it went on, and amazingly had no odor that such medicines usually had. When she was satisfied that she got all of the sore areas, she slipped into her pajamas.
She looked at herself in the mirror again. The pajamas she had chosen were very modest. She rethought what 'little push' she wanted to give him tonight. She certainly wasn't going to give out any hints with these pajamas. She then remembered something she saw in the closet, and a small, evil thought popped into her head. She opened the left side of the closet and looked at a set of man's dress shirts hanging there. Her evil grin returned to her. She selected a dark blue shirt and removed it from the hanger. She thought about one of the white shirts, but they were a little too transparent. She wanted to give him a hint, not a heart attack. She changed from her pajamas into the dress shirt.
She reevaluated herself in the mirror now. She was satisfied with the overall effect and went in search of Caleb. She decided to go to the back porch and call for him. She was going to ask him to tuck her in for the night, hoping that would melt his resistance just a little.
She walked through the living room, and then outside to the back porch. She moved over to the railing and was about to shout for Caleb when she heard someone talking. Caleb was right, voices did carry very well out here. She started to listen to the voice, in case it was one of the people chasing her. After a couple of seconds, she recognized the voice as belonging to Caleb. He was standing around the corner of the house, in the area in front of the kitchen door. He was looking up at the stars as he talked. 'Who the heck is he talking to?' she thought. Curious now, she started to eavesdrop on his conversation.
"I know it's been a while since I last talked to you, but things have been really crazy lately," she could hear Caleb say. "I've been really confused for the last couple of days. I don't know what to do. I've always thought that I would never find anyone who would affect me the way you did."
Liz realized that he was speaking to the memory of his dead wife. She knew that she should leave right now, but she couldn't tear herself away. She just hoped that if Caleb caught her, he would forgive her.
He continued, "You were the only one who could complete me. Every time I considered meeting someone new, I felt like I was cheating on you. I loved you so much. How could I ever feel that way again? I knew that it would be impossible, so I never considered the possibility of ever being with someone again. I know you would be angry with me for choosing to be alone. In fact, I can almost hear you yelling at me now."
"But something has happened to me. Actually someone. She fell into my life a couple of days ago. For the first time in a long time, I haven't felt completely alone. Something happens to me when she's around. But, it's hard sometimes to get past the guilt. I know what I need to do now. I know what you would have wanted me to do. So tonight I'm going to say goodbye. I probably should have done it a long time ago like all those counselors kept telling me to do. I'll never forget you, but I need to let you go. Wherever you are now, I hope that you approve."
"By the way I think that you would like Elizabeth. She's not you, but then again I'm not the same man I was all those years ago. I'm not really sure how to start a relationship again. It'll be very hard for me. But either way, tonight I will say good night to you for the last time. It's time for me to rejoin the human race." He continued to look at the stars for a minute, and then dropped his head as if in prayer.
Liz could feel the tears running down her cheeks. She wiped them off with the sleeves of his shirt. She then saw him turn around and look directly at her. She was frozen in her place under his stare. He walked slowly toward her. He reached the porch and stood on the other side of the railing looking intently into her eyes. Since he was a step down from the porch, their eyes were almost at the same level.
She managed to choke out, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to eavesdrop when I first came out here."
"It's alright. Did you hear most of that?" he asked. She could see the evidence of tears in his eyes.
"Pretty much," she answered.
"Elizabeth, I don't expect you…"He stopped talking when Liz covered his mouth with her fingers.
"Caleb, I don't want you to say anything. I just want you to listen to me first. I don't want to push you into anything you're not ready for. You should know that I am your friend. Whatever more you want in our relationship is up to you. But I would be open to taking our relationship as far as you want. I'm in no hurry. There is something deep inside me that you have touched. Something that no one has ever touched before. I know we have a lot to learn about each other. But without even knowing your past, I know that I can trust you with my life."
After pausing a moment, she continued, "I've traveled around the world, first with my parents, and then for my job. I asked my Mom once if it bothered her that she didn't have a home for her own. Do you know what she told me?"
"She said that anywhere she was with my Dad was home. That's where she belonged."
She gathered her courage for her final statement. "Since I left my parents, I've never really had a place I could call home. No one is waiting for me back in L.A. And after just two days here, when I think of home, I think of this house."
There, she had said it. To heck with being subtle. She brought her hand up and placed it on his cheek. "That's all I wanted to say. So just think about it. Unless you throw me out, I'm not going anywhere soon."
After a slight pause, she then told him, "And unless you don't want me to, I want to give you a kiss goodnight."
Caleb got out in a whisper, "I want you to."
Liz leaned over the railing and softly touched her lips to his. She brought her other hand up to cup his face as she kissed him. The kiss was a promise, soft and sweet. Passion would be for later. Tonight she wanted him to feel her heart.
The world disappeared, leaving only Caleb, and her, and their kiss. She had read stories of lovers kissing for the first time, saying how they could feel their hearts and souls touching. She always scoffed at those stories, knowing that nothing that idealized could really exist. At this instant in time, she knew where those poets and writers had gotten their inspiration.
Eventually, they ended their kiss. Without breaking their eye contact she murmured, "Goodnight Caleb."
"Good night Elizabeth," he said. They were still so close that she could feel his breath on her lips as he spoke.
Neither moved for several minutes. Finally, Caleb found his voice again and said, "Thank you for being patient with me."
"I've waited my whole life to feel like this. A little more of a wait isn't going to scare me off."
She slowly moved away from him and headed for the glass doors. Over her shoulder, she heard Caleb say to her, "Goodnight, sweet princess, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
She smiled. Without turning around, she answered, "Goodnight, brave knight." She then entered the house and made her way to her bedroom.
She settled down into her bed and covered herself with the quilt. Her mind was still reeling from their good night kiss. She knew that there was still a lot to deal with before they could pursue a real relationship. He only, just tonight, had said goodbye to his wife, after many years of holding her in his heart. He would be uncertain about giving his heart away so soon after that. But she knew that he already had some feelings for her. And that kiss had been very mutual.
There was that little detail of a group of megalomaniacs who were trying to kill her. Of course, she and Caleb still needed to find Superman, if he existed, and warn him about the Nazis. And then there was Caleb's story that she still needed to hear. 'No problem,' she thought. 'We find Superman, catch the bad guys, save the world, and Caleb tells me his life story. Then we live happily after ever.'
She laughed to herself. All that didn't matter. Whatever they had to get through, she would gladly endure. Because even with all the uncertainty of what tomorrow would bring, there was one thing that she was absolutely certain of — tonight, for the first time in her life, she had fallen in love.
The sound of a crowing rooster resonated through the ranch, causing Liz to shoot up to a sitting position in her bed. She stared straight ahead, unmoving, with a shocked look on her face. After several seconds she finally moved, placing a hand on her forehead. She slowly turned her head to look at the clock on the desk. '6:00 am. It's 6:00 am. Chicken Kiev is too good for him.'
She threw the quilt off her body, got out of bed and walked over to the window. She looked out to see the Montana dawn breaking. Chester once again announced the start of the new day. She tried to sustain her anger with the rooster, but found she could not. Somehow it seemed to be wrong to remain in bed in this magical land, with the day dawning outside. She lightly put her fingers to the glass and felt the coolness of the morning seeping through. Now fully awake, her mind began to play back the events of last night. And the kiss. She could still feel the touch of his lips. She brought her fingers to her lips, feeling their coolness from the glass.
Last night she had acted without thinking, only feeling. It had felt so right at the time. That feeling had given her the courage to take a chance. Now she stood in the light of the next day. She worried if she had pushed too hard, if he would go back into his shell. His marriage must have been very special for him to grieve for so long without letting go. Had she shown him that he could love again? She didn't want to take his wife's place. She wanted to take a new place in his heart.
She gave a small sigh and looked out the window again. The dawn sky was brightening, turning bluer. Again she thought about the magic quality of this place. In the back of her mind she suspected that she would suddenly wake up in her apartment in Westwood, and all this would be but a distant fantasy. But the feeling was too real — in fact, the most real thing she had ever experienced in her life.
Her thoughts turned back to Caleb. 'What'll be his reaction to me this morning, now that he has had the night to think about it? To think about us. How will he be with me today? Lord, I've never been so nervous in my entire life.'
She didn't know how long she stood there at the window looking out at the dawn. But at some point she became aware of him. Without turning around, she knew he was there, looking at her. The smell of coffee reached her, making her smile. 'He's trying to break the ice by bribing me with coffee. Might as well let him think it worked.'
"I hope that's for me," she said, still looking out the window.
"I took the liberty of adding a little bit of cream for you," he replied. "Just so you could ease into the morning."
She could feel his grin at her back. With a silent prayer on her lips, she turned to face him. He was dressed and looked ready to take on the world. She walked up to him and reached up to receive the mug. Through his smile she could see the apprehension on his face. Raising the mug to her lips, she took a sip. "Perfect. Thank you, Caleb," she said.
She could see him struggling with what he wanted to say to her. He looked like a shy schoolboy, alternating between looking at her, and looking at his feet. It was so at odds with his wisdom and intelligence. Experience and uncertainty seem to war inside him. The combination made her love him all the more.
Finally he was able to find his voice. "Elizabeth, I just thought you should know that I…" He paused, looking for the right words. "I don't want you to feel uncomfortable with me today. A lot might happen, and I don't want you to think…" He stopped again, struggling to find the right words. He rubbed the back of his neck while appearing to regard the toes of his boots as the most fascinating things in the world.
Finally finding the words he said, "I just thought I should let you know how I feel about what happened last night. Between you and me. It shocked… No that's not the right word. It shook me. Not in a bad way, but it was… unexpected." Again he paused to collect himself.
"I want to share something about my past. About how I was when my wife died. But only if you want to hear it," he said.
Liz put the coffee down on the desk and then took one of his hands in hers. "I think that after what I said to you last night, you should know that you can share anything with me."
He looked down at his feet again. "I guess I know that." He took a deep breath and continued, "After my wife died, I didn't think I would survive without her. I didn't quite believe that she had really gone. Sometimes at night I would hear a sound in my house, and look up expecting to see her standing there. I thought I was going insane. I didn't even cry for a year after she died. I thought if I cried it meant that she was really gone, and I had given up on her. In my mind, I knew that she was really gone, but in my heart I hoped it was just a bad dream. When I finally did cry for her, I didn't stop for a week."
Liz didn't say a thing. She wanted him to get this out, to see where he was going. Hopefully wherever he ended, he would let her be there with him.
He continued, "After that, my life went on, in a fashion. But it was a life tainted by a constant sadness. I was convinced that I wasn't really fully alive without her there to complete me. That sadness kept me from rejoining life again. I didn't know how to face people again, so I isolated myself from the touch of any other person."
He then looked directly into her eyes. "But this morning when I woke up, something had changed. For the first time in a very long time, something has taken the place of that sadness."
She looked into his eyes. Her voice almost caught in her throat. "So, what is different this morning?"
"There is someone that I looked forward to seeing this morning. Someone who had touched me in a place that I thought had died. It is wonderful and scary at the same time."
Liz's heart grew hopeful. She, herself, almost couldn't believe the feelings she had for a man that she hardly knew. She was torn. Part of her wanted to be cautious and learn more about him. Another part wanted to tell him right then and there that she loved him, no matter what had come in his life before. "I know what you mean. It's wonderful and scary for me too."
"Truthfully, I'm still trying to sort out my feelings of guilt. I still wonder if I could just shove the feelings for my late wife into a corner to make room for someone else… for you."
Liz thought it was time to share something with him now. She knew that her father would think it was all right. She got his attention by touching his face gently with her other hand. "Caleb, there's something I want to tell you . Something about my father. You see, my mother is not the first woman my dad was married to. Before he knew my mom, he was married to someone else. She died less than a year after they were married. My dad told me that he loved her very much. He said, to this day, he still thinks of her now and again. Not that he isn't totally in love with my mom. In fact, they're pretty disgusting together, even in public." She shook her head and laughed a little.
"I once asked him how he could still think about his first wife, if he was supposed to be in love with mom. You know what he told me?"
"He told me that the human heart was big. Big enough for him to love mom, to love me, and to keep a special place in his heart for his first wife. I don't want you to shove your feelings for your first wife out of your heart to make room for me. I want you to open your heart to let me in. I think there's enough room in there for me too."
Caleb looked directly into her eyes, reflecting on her words. After a minute, his smile grew until it matched the brightness of the coming dawn. "You know, you're something else, Elizabeth Ellington. How did you do this to me? After all these years, and counselors I might add, wallowing in my sadness. And in three days you knock some sense into me. Are you sure you want to hang around with someone as dysfunctional as me?"
Liz basked in the glow of his smile. She couldn't think of anything in the universe better than to hang around with him. However, not wanting him to get too cocky, she replied, "Well you'll need a little work and polishing, but for right now you'll do." Her grin bordered on evil. It was hard to have a totally evil grin when she was so secretly happy.
"Thanks, I think. Elizabeth, seriously, I want you to know that you have become special to me and I want to spend more time with you. Get to know each other. I still need to share with you some things about me before we go much further with our feelings. And there's also that little matter of those people trying to kill us and take over the world."
"Oh yes, that," she said. "Well, we better get going if we want to catch the bad guys and save the world, all before dinner."
"You think it'll take us that long?" he asked, his smile now turning mischievous.
"Well, I still need to recover from riding yesterday. I think that we…" She stopped abruptly and shouted, "Superman!"
Caleb blinked, shook his head, and asked, "What about him?"
"We haven't found him yet. Heck, we haven't even started looking yet. Of course, I could be crazy, and he really doesn't exist."
"You're not crazy," Caleb said quietly. "I actually came in here to tell you some news you might be interested in. It seems that two men tried to break our friends out of jail early this morning before sunrise. They showed up at the prison and used a very illegal photon weapon to tear a hole in one of the walls. They were just about to get away with breaking the other two guys out of jail, when guess what happened?"
"A flying man, dressed in all black, swooped down and captured them all."
"Good guess," said Caleb. "This time the prison recorders caught him. Also, the one deputy who was left conscious saw the whole thing."
"I knew it!" said Liz. "Well at least we know he exists. Now we just need to know how to find him."
"Well, why don't you get dressed and we can plan something out," he said. He was about to leave the room when he said, "By the way, do you remember what I said about a woman wearing just a man's sweatshirt? Well the effect is multiplied when she wears just his dress shirt." With that he left the room.
'So he finally noticed! Wow, and all that before breakfast. Can't say that having a relationship with him will be boring.'
She selected some of the new clothes she bought the day before and got dressed. After freshening up a bit in the bathroom, she went into the kitchen. Caleb was pulling something out of the oven as she entered.
"I hope you like breakfast quiche," he said. "If not, I can whip you up an omelet or something. I even have some granola if want a bowl of cereal."
"You're trying to get me fat, aren't you?" she asked. She wore a face of mock indignation.
"Don't worry, the way things have been going for us lately, I'm sure we'll have ample opportunity to work off these calories. Besides I only cook healthy food nowadays. I can't afford to eat like I used to."
"Humph. I bet. Well, it looks too good to pass up anyway," she said as she sat down at the table. "Hey, you know, on one of my research expeditions I found a set of humor books in the basement of an old house. The basic philosophy was…"
"…Real men don't eat quiche," he finished for her.
She looked at him surprised. "Now, how would you know something like that. Those books I found were from the third quarter of the Twentieth century. They've never been republished."
"You're not the only one who likes history. I used to have quite a hobby digging up obscure facts from the past." He then placed a slice of the quiche in front of her. "So juice or milk?"
"Um, juice." He did it again. Just when she was trying to find out something strange about him, he changed the subject and she just went along for the ride. By the time he was done, she would never get back to the original question. Well not this time.
"So tell me about this hobby of yours," she said to him.
He placed his breakfast on the table with glasses of juice for the both of them. He then sat down across from her and started into his quiche. "You should eat that before it gets cold," he mumbled between bites.
"Oh no, you don't Mr. Smith. I asked you a question and I want an answer."
"No, you didn't."
"No, I didn't what?" she asked.
"You didn't asked me a question, you made a demand."
"Well, yes, I did. I didn't mean to make it sound like a command, I just wanted to know something about you."
"That's O.K. it didn't bother me," he said as he attacked his breakfast with gusto. He then took a big swig of juice and said, "Oh, I forgot to tell you, Jeb promised to have a hover delivered to us first thing this morning. I better check when it's going to arrive. I'll be right back." He got up and went quickly into the living room.
'I guess the hover will let us cover more ground,' she thought as she began to eat her breakfast. 'Wow, this is great. Where did he learn how to cook? Too bad about Moonbeam, I was just getting used to her. Or maybe, it was she who was just getting used to me. I hope she doesn't get sad about…' Her thoughts ground to a halt. She snapped her head in the direction of the living room with a look of pure exasperation.
'That son of a … He did it to me again. He obviously doesn't realize who he's dealing with if he thinks he can get away with that. I'll just force him to tell me what I want to know, right now.' She looked down at her plate a moment and then thought, 'right after I finish this quiche.'
After polishing off the last of her breakfast, she went to track him down to wring the truth from his slippery hide.
She found him sitting in the living room, tapping his Comm unit against his bottom lip with a worried look on his face. She put aside her original intent to address whatever concerned him at he moment. "Anything wrong Caleb?"
"I'm not sure. I just got a message from a driver saying that he will be delivering one of Jeb's hovers within the next 5 minutes. I called Jeb to thank him, but the service reports his line is out of order. I called the operator to check the line and he said that it appeared to be damaged. I don't like it." Just then the sound of a hovercraft setting down came from outside.
"I think that's our cue," she said. "Want to go over and check on Jeb?"
Caleb gave her a small grin. "Thanks for understanding. Let's go." He got up and went to the living room door.
He stopped before going outside and turned to her with an apologetic expression on his face. "I want you to know that I'm not trying to avoid telling you things about me. It's just that there are some… unusual things about my life that I need to tell you about. But I want to be able to do it when we have some real time to talk about it. You may need to ask me a lot of questions when I tell you that story."
'So he was doing it on purpose,' she thought. 'At least he admitted it to me.' "To tell you the truth Caleb, I was starting to wonder why you always seem to avoid certain questions. I guess since you 'fessed up, I'll let it go for now. But as soon as we have 10 minutes to ourselves, without someone chasing us or trying to kill us, you owe me that story!"
"You like me or not?" she asked staring straight into his eyes with her arms crossed in front of her. She couldn't pass up an opportunity for a little teasing with him, even this early in the morning.
"Yes, I do."
The sincerity in his voice made her waiver from her plan to tease him a little. "Then I want…no, I need you to share your story with me. Just as I need to share my story with you. I know that it's a little crazy now, but I need to get to know the rest of you, just like you need to get to know the rest of me. Don't be scared to share your secrets with me Caleb, you can trust me with them… and with your heart. And just so you know, I trust you, even without knowing your secrets."
She could see him carefully choose his next words. "Elizabeth, I already do trust you. But it's more than that. Secrets are more than a matter of trust. They are a burden too. Once I share my secrets, there's no taking them back. You'll be stuck with them, no matter what. Since you asked me to share them with you, I will. Just because you asked. But, right now we don't have the time to talk properly about my story. The first moment we do, I promise to tell you everything. You just have to be patient with me a little while longer."
'Damn, he looks like a lost puppy,' she thought to herself. 'It's really not fair of him.'
"You know those 'puppy dog eyes' of yours won't work on me every time," she said "I'll get used to them in a couple of years."
"I hope so," he said in a soft, warm voice.
Liz couldn't do anything but smile at him. "All right Rover, let's get going." She playfully smacked him on the arm and walked outside.
A standard looking hovercraft was parked in the area between the house and the stable with its engine turned off. "That's strange," said Caleb. "Where's the driver?" Liz could see that the cabin of the hover was empty.
Caleb got a concerned look at his face and turned quickly to Liz. "Elizabeth, we have to get back to the house. Now. Don't ask any questions, just trust me and hurry." He then grabbed Liz's hand and started to run back to the house. They only got a few yards when the ground in front of them exploded. Caleb pulled Liz close to himself to protect her from debris flying off the ground.
After the dust had settled she could hear two sets of footsteps approaching them from the direction of the hover. A voice asked, "Going off so soon? We haven't had a chance to talk yet."
Liz, still being held protectively by Caleb, turned her head to see two well dressed men standing a few feet away from them. Each man carried a nasty looking, rifle-sized weapon. And they were pointed directly at Caleb and Liz.
"What do you want?" Caleb asked them. Liz watched her gentle rancher transform before her eyes. With her now was the stern looking fighter and protector from yesterday. He now wore a hard, menacing look in his narrowed eyes. Despite the presence of the ominous looking weapons, his demeanor held no fear, only irritation. She could actually see both men hesitating under to scrutiny of his glare.
It took a few seconds for the obvious leader of the two to compose himself. "You don't need to know that for now, just get back in the house. Walk slowly and don't attempt to run away, I don't need to be real accurate with this weapon."
Liz could see Caleb gritting his teeth. She could swear he was weighing his options to determine the best course of action. 'He can't possibly believe he can take on these guys. Hand guns are one thing, but these guys are serious.'
The lead captor directed Liz and Caleb back to the living room's glass door. Caleb carefully released Liz from his protective embrace and took her hand in his. They slowly walked towards the back porch, with the armed men following them at a close, but out-of-reach distance. After they entered the house, Liz and Caleb were led to the couch and instructed to sit down.
The leader took out a small phone style Comm unit and spoke a code name into it. Liz could hear him saying, "Yes, no trouble… We have them inside his house… No, no one saw us, this area is pretty deserted… Got it. We'll wait here for you for your instructions."
"O.K. boys and girls we have a short wait," the leader said. "So we'll just relax for a bit."
"So what happened to Jeb's driver?" Caleb asked.
"The leader smirked and answered, "I think he ran off when he saw good-old Jeb's house get annihilated in front of him. Guess he didn't think there'd be a job left for him."
Liz saw Caleb's face darken with a cold fury. Again, he looked like he was about to take some kind of action. When he looked at her, he seemed to change his mind. Turning back to them he asked, "Why? Why Jeb?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," the man with the gun replied. "I don't get paid to think about those things."
"I didn't think that the Nazis needed to hire professionals to do their dirty work for them," Caleb said with undisguised contempt. "I thought they only used 'true believers' in their cause."
"The Nazis!" the leader replied with a snort. "We don't work for that bunch of idiots. We just used them for cover. They couldn't fight their way out of a paper sack. We should have just gotten rid of those two clowns you took out the other day, instead of trying to spring them and losing two more guys. But the boss thought it would blow our cover to just whack them outright. Go figure. Now, if you have any other questions, keep them to yourself, I'm tired of talking."
Caleb slumped back on the couch, looking dejected. "I should have been there," he mumbled softly. "It's my fault." He then looked solemnly at Liz and said, "I can't believe I let Jeb down like that."
Liz shook her head and whispered to him, "Caleb, there was no way you could have known. Nothing you could have done. Even if you were there, you'd just be dead too. Jeb wouldn't have wanted that." She could tell by the haunted look on his face that she was doing little to sway him with her argument.
The men holding them hostage were ignoring them at the moment so they didn't bother to eavesdrop on Liz's and Caleb's conversation. Caleb turned to look at their captors, seeming to weigh his next course of action. After a few moments, he appeared to make up his mind about something. He put his arm around her, as if he was comforting her, and leaned in close to whisper in her ear. "I'm going to try the subtle approach. Whatever I do, play along. Don't worry, I won't let anything happen to you."
She didn't really understand what he was planning, but she did trust him. She saw him rub his stomach, and he started to groan. "Ohhhhh. Honey, I think it's coming back." He clutched his stomach, leaned over, and groaned louder.
"What's the matter with your boyfriend?" the lead captor asked her.
"Oh, its, um, food poisoning from yesterday. It really hit him hard. I think he spent all night in the bathroom." She then put her hand on his back and started to soothe him.
Putting her mouth by his ear, she whispered to him without moving her mouth, "What are you doing?"
"Just play along. I need to get to the bathroom," he whispered back. He then said out loud, "I think I'm going to throw up again!"
Liz looked at her captors and said, "I better get him to the bathroom. It's not a pretty sight if he doesn't make it." She then started to get up to escort him to the bathroom.
"Stop!" the lead captor said. "I don't believe it. They don't pay me enough to put up with this. Manny, take him to the can." Pointing the gun at Liz, he said, "You. Sit down."
After helping Caleb to his feet, Liz sat back down on the couch. She watched Caleb walk to the bathroom, with Manny right behind. "And close the door, I don't want to listen to him puking!" The lead man shouted after them.
Liz heard the door close and settled back into her place on the couch. 'What the heck does he think he's going to do in there? Flush him into unconsciousness?' She looked back on her captor who seemed more interested in his fingernails at the moment.
She looked up at the hallway, not sure what to expect. She couldn't see the bathroom door from the living room since it was down the hallway a bit. The head captor was now looking out the window, with his back to the hallway. As she looked up at the hallway again she saw a hand waving at her. It was Caleb. His hand pointed at the captor standing in the living room, and then to the recliner chair at the end of the couch. The recliner was positioned with it's back to the open portion of the hallway.
'I hope he knows what he's doing ,' she thought. She looked over at the man with the gun who was still staring out the glass door of the living room. After thinking a moment, she said, "So what's your name? I know the other guy is Manny. I was just wondering, because I don't want to keep on thinking of you as Goon Number 1, which is what I've been doing so far. And that doesn't seem right, because now I think of Manny as Manny. And I think it would be nicer to refer to you by name instead of 'hey you'. So if I knew your name, it would be easier to ask you a question, like if it's tiring standing there with that heavy gun. If it is, you should sit down for a while. Besides, you're making me kind of nervous just standing there like that." She didn't have to fake the nervousness she heard in her voice.
Goon #1 looked at her unblinking for a few moments. He then blinked once, shook his head, and said, "If I sit down, will you shut up?"
"Um, sure. I can do that. I won't say another word. I'll be as quiet as a…"
"Enough!" her captor shouted. "I get the point!" Liz immediately shut her mouth closed. The man walked across the room, and sat down heavily into the recliner.
'Now what?' she thought to herself. She sat there, quietly staring at her captor. He placed his weapon on his lap and relaxed back into the chair to get more comfortable.
Liz could see him leering at her, but she was too scared at the moment to really care. Without taking his eyes off her, he took his hand off the trigger of the rifle to scratch his nose. He didn't realize until too late, that scratching his nose would be such a big mistake. The moment his hand touched his nose, Caleb sprang up from behind the chair, reached over, and hooked his left arm around the man's throat. So sudden was the move that Liz jumped up off the couch startled, and screamed. Without pausing, Caleb then pulled back, lifting the man out of the chair. The man's weapon flew off of his lap, falling to the floor. Caleb then clamped his right forearm on the back of the man's neck, and flexed the muscles in his arms. The man struggled for a few moments, and then slumped forward unconscious.
Liz should have been more astonished at what just happened, but somehow it didn't seem to surprise her much anymore. She had come to expect the unexpected when it came to this man. It seemed natural now to believe that he had easily just taken care of their two captors. Whatever his story was going to be, she was sure it was going to be very, very interesting.
She could see him talking into his small Comm unit. "That's right, I need to talk to Marshal Harris right away. It's an emergency." She could hear the person on the other end telling Caleb that Marshal Harris was in her vehicle, on the way to somewhere, but that he would patch him through. A few seconds later Liz could her a strong woman's voice come through the Comm unit, "Marshal Harris here."
"Marshal, it's Caleb. You need to get to Jeb's place right away. You may need to bring a search team and equipment. I just found out that someone destroyed Jeb's house."
"What?" the Marshal exclaimed.
"Apparently two men with illegal photon weapons went there early this morning and destroyed Jeb's house. Then, they came over here and held us hostage for a short time. I managed to subdue them, so you need to send someone over to my place to pick them up."
"You managed to 'subdue' them," she said slowly, emphasizing the word 'subdue'. "Two men, carrying photon weapons, and you subdued them?"
"Listen Marshal, I'll explain later. Right now, I've got to get over to Jeb's as soon as possible. I'm afraid that he was probably in his house when they destroyed it. I'm going to check…"
The Marshal interrupted him, "Um, Jeb wasn't in his house when it was destroyed."
"He wasn't? Thank God. Do you know where he is? He still might be in danger."
A new voice came through the Comm unit and said, "Don't worry boy, I'm sure that Mary can take care of me. For now." It was Jeb's voice.
"Jeb, not that I'm not grateful, but what are you doing with the Marshal?" Caleb asked, sounding relieved. By this time, Liz had walked up to Caleb and placed a hand over the microphone of his Comm unit. She was shaking her head and mouthing the words, "Don't worry about it."
There was a few moments silence at the end. Finally Jeb said, "Well, let's just say I took Miss Elizabeth's advice last night. Mary and I had a nice… talk about things."
Liz chuckled once and muttered, "Hmmm, I bet they 'talked'."
Caleb gave Liz a stern glare. She was sure that 99.99% of the Earth's population would find that look extremely intimidating. Which was of course why it made her burst out laughing when she looked at him.
Caleb took a second to collect himself and then said, "O.K. Jeb, I guess maybe we should all meet here then. Since you don't have a place to stay at the moment, I could put you up here for the time being." Liz shook her head again and whispered to him, "That's not going to be necessary." Caleb looked at her with a confused expression on his face. 'I swear, men can be so dense sometimes,' she thought.
Jeb's voice came through the Comm unit once again. "Actually son, I don't think that'll be necessary. Thanks for the offer though." Then the Marshal's voice could be heard. "Caleb, you and your guest get down to the station right after I have a car pick up those two assailants at your place. We can try to sort this all out there."
Jeb came back on the line. "Is Miss Elizabeth there?"
"I'm here Jeb."
"You know, I hope you find out what's going on real quick like. I'm running out of stuff that can be destroyed. I don't even want to guess what could happen next."
"Oh, Jeb. I'm so sorry. Knowing me hasn't been that great for you, has it?"
There was a few seconds of silence then Jeb said, "Actually the advice you gave me was worth losing all my stuff. So, meeting you was one of the best things that has happened to me in a long time." After another pause he added, "The second best thing." Liz knew who he was looking at when he said that to her. A big smile grew on her face as she replied, "Thanks Jeb."
Liz could hear the sound of another vehicle pulling up behind the house. Caleb took the Comm unit from her and said, "Mary, your guys are here. After we load them up, we'll get right to the station."
"All right Caleb, see you there." Caleb closed the connection and placed the unit back into his pants pocket. A couple of Deputies appeared at the glass doors.
Caleb waved them in and introduced them to Liz. "Elizabeth, this is Deputy John Coolidge," Caleb said, pointing to the taller African American man in front of them. Pointing to the shorter red haired man, he said, "And this is Deputy Jimmy Keegan." They both shook Liz's hand and then got to work securing their prisoners and the weapons. Deputy Keegan found Manny lying unconscious in the bathtub. He didn't ask.
Liz watched Deputy Coolidge examine one of the rifles with an appreciative eye. "Man, this thing looks like it could take out the side of a hill. I've never seen one of these outside of some military demonstrations. These guys must have some kind of connections to get a hold of a weapon like this." Looking at the rifle again appreciatively he added, "Wonder what it'll be like to fire one of these babies?"
'Men!' Liz thought to herself. 'Give them something shiny that makes lots of noise and they turn into little boys.'
"That's a Mark 7 Annihilator photon rifle," replied Caleb. "It's the latest technology they have right now. I think there are less than 40 in existence. For these guys to have this weapon means that there is someone high in the government sponsoring them. This is not good." He was talking more to himself now.
After contemplating something for a second, he said, "You know I've got to make a call and check something before we leave. You guys go ahead and deliver these goons to the Marshal. Tell her we'll be right along."
A few minutes later, the Deputies had loaded their prisoners and the confiscated weapons, and took off to the Marshal's station. Caleb went back inside with Liz and walked over to the bookcase. He opened another cabinet door and removed a larger Comm unit, one with video capability. He then removed another small device and set both up on the coffee table. He plugged the smaller device into the side of the Comm unit. Reaching into his back pocket, he took out the lead captor's portable Comm unit.
"How did you get that?" Liz asked.
"It sort of fell into my pocket before the Deputies got here." He was wearing one of his mischievous grins. "This device on the side will be able to extract the last number he dialed on this unit, so we can find out who he called."
"Oh," was all she could say. She was still bewildered by the contradictions of this man. One minute he was a sweet, gentle recluse. The next he was a stern, cool fighter, able to take out men holding guns without breaking a sweat. And now he was a techno wizard, with secret gadgets hidden in his cabinets. She was now officially being driven crazy with curiosity. To heck with patience, she wanted to know who he really was. She didn't care if it was good or bad anymore, she just had to know.
She turned to him and said, "Caleb, I think you have to…"
She was interrupted in making her request as Caleb, staring at the video screen on the coffee table, raised one hand up in a gesture for her to wait a moment. "I'll be with you in a second, sweetie, I just need to concentrate on this for a moment." He started punching buttons on both the Comm unit and the device on its side.
'Wait a minute! Wait a minute, he says! I've been waiting a minute for three days. Can't he talk to me and fiddle with gizmos at the same time? Oh yeah, I forgot. Once men get into a certain 'box', they can't think about anything else until they are done with that box. Maybe if I…' Thoughts suddenly changed tracks. 'He … He called me "sweetie".' A wistful smile came over her, as she watched her living paradox work with his toys. 'The big lunkhead. Probably doesn't even realize what he said to me. Hmmm… I guess I'll let him off the hook for a few more minutes.'
"Got it!" he cried triumphantly. She noted how he looked like a little boy who just got a new valuable baseball card. "Here," he said showing her the readout. "Do you recognize this number?"
Liz looked at the number. Then an angry expression appeared on her face and her eyes narrowed in contempt as she looked at the number. "That son of a … I can't believe he did this to me."
"Let me guess," said Caleb. "It's Risse's number, isn't it?"
"Yes. I vote we go straight to L.A., and I let you practice your Karate moves on his head."
"Tae Kwon Do."
"Whatever, as long as it causes pain."
Caleb chuckled and said, "I vote for the more subtle approach. Let me make a call to check on something." Liz sat down next to him on the couch as he punched a code into his Comm unit. After a couple of rings, a voice came on and asked, "What office do you want?"
"I need to talk to Shir¡. Tell her it's Caleb Smith."
"Thank you, please hold," the voice replied.
Annoying instrumental music could be heard through the speaker as they waited for the connection to be made. Liz thought to herself, 'as soon as I'm President, I'm enacting legislation to outlaw annoying music on phone systems.' The screen then came to life, and Liz saw the image of a woman on the screen. She looked to be a combination of Chinese and Malaysian descent. She had deeply tanned skin, with dark short hair, and almond shaped eyes that were deep, dark brown, almost black. The effect was quite exotic. She spoke directly to Caleb in familiar tones that made Liz slightly jealous.
"Hello, my friend. You have called me to accept my invitation, perhaps?" She wore a slightly evil grin. 'Hey,' Liz thought, 'I have the patent on evil grins. How dare she use one on Caleb!'
Oblivious to Liz's thoughts, Caleb nonchalantly answered, "No Shir¡, I haven't changed my mind. I need some information on a Dr. Risse, head of the archeology department at U.C.L.A. This is a rush job. Also, there will be a Marshal Harris transmitting you some arrest records for 6 people she has in custody. I need you to get me information on them too. I have to warn you that Ned looked into two of them already, and found out that they don't exist, so you may have to do some digging."
"Ned is an idiot," Shir¡ replied. "You will have what you need by the afternoon, your time."
Caleb had a slightly exasperated look on his face. "Shir¡, Ned is not an idiot. He just doesn't have your resources. Besides he's a good guy, so be nice to him."
"Yes, well I don't want to be nice to him. He is under the mistaken impression that he can win my affections. If I'm nice to him, he will get the wrong idea," Shir¡ said, with an exasperated look and tone of voice.
Caleb snickered a little to himself and said, "That won't work. Take it from me, treating him like dirt will only make him try harder."
"Well then, I better let him know not to. You on the other hand…" She didn't finish her sentence, but leaned in toward the screen slightly, and looked at Caleb seductively. At this point, Liz was ready to reach through screen and wring little Miss Info Girl's neck.
"Just get the information for me Shir¡, and be nicer to Ned. Call me on my personal line when you've got it. Oh, and thanks in advance."
"Oh very well," Shir¡ replied. "Just answer me one question. What is it with men, that the more a woman mistreats him, the more the man desires her. Is it some masochistic gene in your makeup?"
Caleb laughed again, "I haven't the slightest idea. I have a friend in anthropology, maybe she would know." He looked at Liz and grinned. Liz didn't take notice of the grin because she was in the middle of planning slow and torturous death scenarios for Shir¡.
Caleb shook his head and said, "Just get me the info, Shir¡. It's very important that I get it as soon as possible. By the way, just in case you're interested, two of these guys had Mark 7's on them. What do you think of that?"
Shir¡'s expression turned serious. "I'll get right on it. I'll contact you when I have what you need." With that, Shir¡ broke the connection.
Caleb then dialed the Marshal and asked her to forward to arrest records of all 6 prisoners to the net address he gave her. "This is a very unusual request Caleb," the Marshal was saying. "Who am I sending this information to?"
"These are friends of mine that work in D.C. They have access to all kinds of records, and they owe me a couple of favors. Because of the sensitive nature of their work, I can't tell you their names. But they are very reliable."
"All right… but just for a friend of Jeb's. Don't let anyone know I did this."
"My lips are sealed. Thanks, Mary. I'll call you when they find something. I think Elizabeth and I are going to stick around here for a while. There's nothing we can do at the station now anyway." The Marshal agreed and they ended the call. He then returned all of the electronic equipment to the cabinet, and sat back down next to Liz.
They sat there for a few moments, just staring into the center of the room. Without moving or turning his head, Caleb asked, "So, would you like a cup of tea?"
"Urggh," Liz yelled. She reached over, grabbed a pillow, and smacked him in the face with it. "You are driving me crazy!" Liz got up from the couch and started to pace back and forth, waving her arms as she spoke.
"Listen, I think I've been more than patient here, and I know it's only been a few days. And God knows, you hardly know me. Of course, *I* don't have any secrets… except for what I did to my Dad's hover on prom night. But what he doesn't know won't hurt him. I mean, one minute you're this nice, gentle, though slightly eccentric rancher who saves my life and cooks great meals… Though I'm still trying to figure out how you know about quiche and how you were able to pull me out of the mud." She thought about that for a second and continued. "The next minute you're Ninja Smith, taking on guys with guns without even batting an eye. And really big guns, I might add. Guns, which apparently only a few people in the world know about including, for some reason, you. But that's another subject entirely. Then, you're friends with an exotic spy woman who wants to have your babies, but for some reason, you have been turning her down for who knows how long. Which is very unusual for a guy, but I digress. So I'm starting to think the worst here, because I really want to believe that you're starting to feel the same things I'm feeling. But I don't want to be married to some ex-spy who's always on the run. So what I'm really trying to say is, who are you?"
Caleb was barely containing a very large grin as he said, "You know I was just thinking the same thing, except with a lot fewer words."
Liz had stopped pacing now and was staring at him with a befuddled look. "Um, which part?"
"The part where I hope you're starting to feel the same things I am, and it's time to share my story with you."
"Oh… yes. That part. Well, that's what I basically wanted to say."
She could see that Caleb was now suppressing his laughter at her statement, then got very serious. "The first part of the story may upset you slightly. You see… I've been sort of holding out on you. But only because it's part of my secret."
He gave her a small sheepish smile. She kind of guessed what he was holding out on, but she let him continue. "Go ahead, I'll keep an open mind."
"Hmmm… O.K., here it is. We don't have to look for your Superman, because I already know him."
"I knew it! I can't believe you made me go through that whole proof thing and you knew the truth the whole time. I've been thinking that you were looking at me like I was crazy for chasing a nonexistent man, and you've been buddies with him the whole time. And why is that part of your secret? Are you in some kind of secret club with him too?" She was not a happy camper.
He started to rub the back of his neck again, a move she recognized he did when he was nervous. 'Funny how men with scary guns don't make him nervous, but I do,' she thought. 'This may be a good thing.' An evil grin formed in her mind.
"It's not that, Elizabeth. The fact is that this Superman wants to remain anonymous. Like I said, secrets are a burden. Once you're given a secret, you're stuck with it. Like now. Even if you decided that you never want to see me ever again, you have to keep this secret for the rest of your life. It's not fair of me to ask that of anybody, except someone I lo…" He suddenly stopped and looked at the ground.
Elizabeth realized what he was about to say. She could leave it there. But she didn't *want* to leave it there. Maybe living on the edge for the last few days had made her a little bolder. Maybe it was the connection she felt with this man. Whatever it was, it made her want to hear him finish what he was about to say. "…except someone you, what?"
Caleb got up and walked over to where Liz was standing. He looked her directly in her eyes, and with a quiet, solemn voice whispered, "…except someone I love."
Without either of them saying another word, they moved together into a passionate embrace. Caleb bent his head and gently touched his lips to hers, as if asking permission to share his passion. She responded to his request by deepening their kiss. She flung her arms around his neck and lost herself in his essence through their contact. Nothing that came before could compare to this one moment. She lost her sense of time and place, and was aware only of the two of them releasing their emotions to each other. She could swear that she felt their souls entwining as their bodies sought deeper and deeper contact in their kiss.
After a time unmeasured their lips parted, both breathing heavily from the aftermath of their emotional release. Breathlessly she whispered to him, "Caleb, tell me now if you can't be with me because of a horrible past. Tell me now, please."
"There is nothing in my past that is evil or horrible. But I do have some things that are different about me. Things that I hope you can put up with. Would you like me to share them with you now?"
"Oh, yes, please." She still had her arms around his neck and she was gazing directly into his eyes. She knew that she hadn't quite recovered from their kiss yet, and didn't think that she could stand on her own at the moment.
"Then there's something I need to show you. Let's take the hover to a special place I know." He led her out the glass doors and toward the hovercraft that was parked outside. Luckily their ex-captors had left the keys in the ignition. Caleb helped get Liz seated in the hover, and took the driver's seat for himself.
He pointed the vehicle North, and took off. They drove in silence past the rolling hills of his property for about 15 minutes. Liz looked out her windows contemplating the secrets that Caleb was about to share with her. She had started coming to her own conclusions about what his secrets were, but was willing to wait for him to tell her. He obviously was going to tell her everything now, though she didn't have any idea where they were going, or why they needed to go there to talk.
Her conclusions ranged from eccentric genius to ex-spy to… well she wasn't going to go there yet. But so much didn't add up. His age, how he lived, who he knew. One minute he was this gentle, caring man who sat next to her. But the next minute he could turn into the fearless action hero who'd saved them twice. 'Who are you Caleb Smith? Tinker, tailor, rancher, spy? Could you possibly be who I want you to be? But you couldn't be, it wouldn't add up. Whoever you are, please be someone I can love.'
He parked the vehicle in a seemingly deserted area. After they got out of the hover, they walked together, hand in hand, half way up the next hill. He then turned to her and said, "This is where it starts to get a little different. Are you sure you're ready for this?"
"No," she replied, "but I need to know, so go ahead."
He looked at the hill and spoke some words in a language she didn't recognize. There was a rumbling sound, then Liz saw a large section of the ground pivot up to reveal the entrance to a man-made tunnel. She could feel Caleb squeeze her hand gently. "Follow me," he said to her.
She was scared and excited at the same time. "Where are we going?"
"We're going to answer your questions. Do you trust me?"
"Yes," she replied as they entered the tunnel. Caleb spoke another phrase and the lights turned on as the door began to close. There was a soft thud marking the door's closure. A short distance down the tunnel she saw that they were approaching the entrance to a large room. Caleb looked at her a moment and smiled. He led her through the entry into the room. It looked like an ordinary den with many bookshelves lining the walls. The room was large, easily at least the size of his house. They went to a couch and sat down. Recovering a little from the initial shock, she began to look around at her surroundings. The bookshelves were crammed with books and memorabilia. She recognized some of the objects as being from both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Literally hundreds of photo albums filled several of the bookcases on one of the walls.
Caleb looked at her and said, "This is where the current Superman comes to get away from everything. It's also the place where he has stored the history of his family."
She looked around in wonder. It was one thing to write about the Superman legend, but to be surrounded by it was overwhelming. She could see why this had to be kept a secret. With the level of hero worship attributed to Clark Kent and Lois Lane and their descendants, this place would easily get mobbed. Even as they sat here, the ceremonies were being prepared in Metropolis for the Superman bicentennial. If Caleb really knew this Superman, then he must have a special trust with him. A trust Caleb was willing to share with her.
She looked around the room again, taking in the atmosphere of her surroundings. Her eyes came back to the room's entryway and she noticed a small plaque mounted above it on the wall. The plaque was made of wood, with these three words carved into it by hand: 'Fortress of Solitude'.
Her eyes were fixed upon the plaque. She was well aware of the implication of the words carved into its wood, and was literally mesmerized by the history that now surrounded her. All that time and research into Superman and his family hadn't prepared her for facing the reality before her now. She had come face to face with the artifacts of a legend. And somehow Caleb was tied to all of this. It was mind-boggling to her. A soft tinkling sound broke her out of her trance. She looked over her shoulder to see Caleb placing a tray of tea and cookies on the coffee table in front of the couch.
"I thought that maybe a little snack would be good right now," Caleb said. "Besides you didn't really look ready to talk yet." Comprehending what she had been doing, he swept his eyes around the room, as if assessing its contents for the first time in a while. "You know, I didn't realize how much junk you can collect in a couple of hundred years."
That immediately got Liz's attention. "JUNK? Are you kidding me? Do you realize the treasure this room represents? There isn't an archeologist in the world who wouldn't give everything they have to see this room. It's like finding the Lost Ark. I still can't quite believe that I'm here myself. I know that you probably come here all the time, so this is old hat to you."
Her green eyes were practically glowing from the combination of wonder and frustration. "Not that I really know how you're acquainted with this place… unless you are who I'm beginning to think you are." She used her eyes to bore directly into him, to let him know he was on shaky ground at the moment.
Almost without taking a breath, she continued, "But if you are, then it would really blow my original theory a little. I guess I can handle that, I've been wrong before. Not that I'm trying to rush you into telling me your life story. But it would be nice to know before I start jumping to all kinds of conclusions. Do I seem nervous? Because I feel nervous. I'm usually not the nervous type. So go ahead, tell me, I'm ready." Liz had to stop to take a lung full of air, having literally talked herself out of breath.
"Tea?" he asked, offering her a mug full of steaming tea.
"Yes, that would be lovely," she replied curtly. "A little sugar, no lemon. Now unless you want to hear me scream, start talking."
"Sorry, I was just trying to relax you a little," Caleb said with a reassuring smile as he handed her a mug of tea.
"Well, you failed. Now spill your guts, Smith. Right now! Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Just start." Liz accepted the mug of tea and drank the whole thing in a single gulp, and then slammed the mug down onto the coffee table.
Staring into the empty mug, she added softly, "Please."
Caleb relaxed back against the couch and took a deep breath. He folded his hands together and placed then against his chin. He appeared to be contemplating something on the floor in front of him. "I'm not trying to stall, but I need you to know something first. I haven't shared this with anyone in a very long time. No one else really knows the whole truth about me. And it's been my choice to keep it a secret. Mostly because I don't believe I have the right to burden anyone with carrying this secret for me. And partly because I wanted my life to remain private. It's not a bad secret really, just hard to deal with sometimes," he said in a quiet, almost unsure voice.
He held up his hand slightly when he saw that Liz was going to say something. "Wait, before you say anything, let me finish. I'm on a roll here, and this is difficult for me. Very difficult." He paused a moment to take a deep breath. "Anyway… What I wanted you to know first is that I feel something very special is happening between us. And I never expected that something like this could ever happen to me again. I was perfectly contented… No, that's not right… I was resigned to the fact that I should remain alone for whatever time I had left on this planet. I had built up this nice, cozy solitary existence for myself."
He was still staring at the floor, as if he was afraid to look at her. "Now, for the first time in a very long time, I find myself looking forward to hearing someone's voice, to seeing someone's face, to holding someone in my embrace. If you haven't guessed by now, that someone is you, Elizabeth. I've felt this loneliness for so many years. At some point I had to push it back into the recesses of my soul just so I could deal with it. It became this dull day-to-day ache. Now that feeling has changed into something else. I find that… I need you. I ache for your presence… your touch. I know that we've only known each other for a short time together, but it seems that the men in my family have this thing about love at first sight." He gave her a small smile at his last remark.
"And since that kiss we shared today felt very mutual to me, I'm guessing that you're feeling something for me also." Liz bit her tongue to prevent herself from saying or doing anything. She wanted him to continue, and she didn't want to interrupt him now. Flinging her arms around his neck and kissing him senseless would be a definite interruption at this point.
"I'm telling you this first, just so you know how I feel. I made a mistake with my first wife, and waited too long to share myself with her. Even after it should have been perfectly clear to me what she felt about me. I don't want to repeat my past mistakes with you. I know that we still have a lot to learn about each other, and we need time to see if we're right for each other. But it wouldn't be fair to you to go any further without you knowing everything about me. If you hear what I have to say about my life and you think you can't deal with it, then I'll walk away. I want you to be happy, and I wouldn't want to do anything that would make you unhappy."
Liz merely nodded her agreement. Caleb drew a deep breath and turned to look at her. She looked into his dark brown eyes and saw that he was scared. The man who took on armed assailants without breaking a sweat was afraid. Frightened at the thought of her reaction to whatever he was going to say. She needed to reassure him. She touched his arm softly and said, "Go ahead, I'm not going anywhere."
He smiled at her reassurance. "We'll see about that. OK, I'll start this story at the beginning. I read your book, so I'm aware that you know parts of it, but there are things that no one else knows that I want you to hear."
He paused for a moment, and then began his story. "Once upon a time, in a far away land called Krypton, a man and a woman worked frantically to finish a ship that would carry their only son off their planet to safety. Natural forces, beyond the control of Kryptonians, had caused their planet to start to disintegrate at its core. Soon, the entire planet would collapse upon itself. The man, Jor-El, had tried to warn his people about what was happening. But no one on this man's planet had heeded his warnings of the upcoming calamity, and now it was too late for everyone. As the planet began to break up, they secured their son, the last true son of Krypton, into the tiny craft, and launched it in the void of space."
Liz looked at him with a slightly smug look. She had guessed right. Caleb was part of the Kent legacy. She looked at him with a slightly smug expression and said, "I know this part. I wrote the book, remember?"
"Yes, but what you didn't know is that Jor-El and Lara were an unusual couple for the planet Krypton. You see most of Kryptonian society had adapted a very pragmatic approach to life, to the utmost extreme. Almost all marriages were arranged at a very young age to produce the best political and genetic pairing, and to ensure that only the best of children would be born. Jor-El and Lara were different, they truly loved each other. They had refused their prearranged marriages in order to be with each other. It was one of the main reasons that the Kryptonian councils had ignored Jor-El for so long. Marrying someone purely out of love was considered to be borderline neurotic behavior."
Liz has stunned. "I didn't know that. Matthew never shared that with me."
"Not many people after the fourth or fifth generation of the family got to learn things like that. Clark and Jon weren't around to pass the original stories anymore. The version you heard was altered by the deterioration of time and faltering memories. Would you like to see Jor-El?"
Now, Liz was excited. She couldn't contain her enthusiasm in her voice. "Oh yes, please. Do you have a picture of him?"
Caleb gave her a big smile and said, "Better than that. Watch." He then stretched out his arm, with his palm facing up. He closed his eyes for a moment and concentrated. Liz heard a movement coming from one of the bookcases, and saw a small spherical object, the size of a softball, lift itself off it's stand, and float slowly to Caleb's outstretched hand. He opened his eyes and watched the sphere float to his hand.
"The globe," Liz whispered.
"Yes," Caleb said as it came to a rest on his palm. The globe had the continents of the earth on its surface. Caleb stared at it for a moment, and the continents changed shaped and color.
"Krypton?" Liz asked. She knew that a slight bit of awe could be heard in her voice, but she didn't care.
"The birth place of Kal-El, last surviving Lord of the House of El, and the adopted son of Jonathon and Martha Kent." He took his other hand and placed it on top of the globe. It started to glow and then emitted a holographic beam that formed the image a man in a white robe. The chest of the robe was adorned with the symbol of the House of El, a symbol that looked very much like the letter "S". The image began to speak to the holder of the globe:
"My name is Jor-El and you are Kal-El, my son. The object you now possess has been attuned to you. That you now hear these words is proof that you survived the journey into space and reached your full maturity."
Liz listened in rapt attention as Jor-El's narrative unfolded in front of her. It was wondrous to her to listen to this voice from the distant past. She could hear in his words the proof that this had been a man who truly loved his family.
"Now, it is time for you to learn your heritage. To that end I will appear to you five times. Watch for the light. Listen and learn. Time grows short and we continue to search. The immensity of space is both a blessing and a curse. In that near infinite variety, there must be some place suitable. Hope and desperation drive us in equal measure. Lara works by my side. She's tireless and endlessly patient. Considering what is to come, this is my greatest consolation that we are together."
"This is the second of the five times I will appear to you. You may wonder that I speak your language and not my native Kryptonian. Unmanned Kryptonian probes have explored every corner of the known galaxy and beyond. For thousands of centuries, we've received data back from those probes. I have every confidence that given enough time, we can achieve the conversion to a manned vessel, but will we have the time? There is an ancient Kryptonian saying 'On a long road, take small steps.' Precision and care are the watchwords. Yet we still have far to go."
The scene then switch to what was obviously some time later.
"There is no longer any doubt, the chain reaction has begun. As panic spreads, the population awakens too late to its fate. Our future is inevitable. At last, the computers have located a suitable destination, a planet physically and biologically compatible with Krypton whose inhabitants resemble ours and whose society is based on ethical standards which we too embrace in concept if not always in deed. The inhabitants call it simply Earth."
As she continued to listen, she could also hear the bittersweet tone of knowing that his son would survive, but he would never get to share in the joy of seeing him grow and mature. She wondered if Jor-El knew that his son would grow to become a legend on his adopted planet. Did he realize that by saving Kal-El from his doomed planet, he was ensuring the survival of Earth? That his son Kal-El would come to save the Earth on more than one occasion, never asking for reward or recognition? She felt that the loving father before her would have been very proud of the man that Kal-El had become.
"We have installed the hyper-light drive and tested it as best we can. So much is unknown. Contained within the sphere is the navigational computer that will guide the ship through the maze of hyper-space as well as this account of our final days."
As an archeologist, it was a thrill to see the genesis of one her planet's greatest heroes and legends. This was something that few people had ever got to see, and Caleb was showing it to her. But even more, as an inhabitant of Earth, Liz had this man, Jor-El of Krypton, to thank for her very existence. For that very reason, even though she knew that the events that unfolded before her happened centuries ago, she mourned for Jor-El and Lara as she witnessed the collapse of their planet.
"I try to picture where you are now, as you hear this last chapter. What do you look like? Are you alone? What have you become? Lara and I will never know, but that you should live to experience this, that is enough. We are content. We give you to Earth, to a realm called America and a place called Kansas. Remember us and do not regret our passing. All is fate."
Liz could feel the tears that were running down her cheeks. What she had just seen was at once, inspiring, beautiful, and sad. She wiped the tears from her face with her hand and looked at Caleb. He had removed his hand from the top of the globe and was still staring at the spot where Jor-El had appeared. "You know, no matter how many times I see that, it still gets to me each time," he said softly.
"Caleb, thank you so much for showing this to me."
"It was important that you saw that. Shall I continue the story?"
"Please," she said in a whisper.
Caleb held the globe out in front of him again. It levitated off his hand and floated back to its stand on the bookcase. There was no doubt in Liz's mind now that Caleb was indeed a descendant of Kal-El, a.k.a. Clark Kent. But she needed him to finish his story to know how he related to the current Superman who was operating incognito.
Caleb drew a breath and continued his narrative. "The ship's hyperdrive and navigation system did work correctly, and it landed in an abandoned field in the middle of Kansas. A childless couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent, found the ship and the baby inside. Martha couldn't have children and she and Jonathan were refused adoption. So desperately wanting a child, she did not question the how or the why of the child who had dropped in their lap literally from the sky. Martha immediately bonded with the child and vowed to raise him as her own. Jonathan Kent also immediately came to the conclusion that this child was meant to be their son. After he had brought Martha and their new son home, he returned to the landing site and disposed of all the evidence of the ship and of its landing."
Caleb smiled a little at this statement. "They were quite a couple. Jonathan the conservative farmer, an unassuming man with a quiet wisdom. And Martha, an ex wild child from the beatnik era who fell in love with a country boy from Kansas. Each family thought they were crazy to marry each other. But their families didn't realize that Jonathan and Martha completed each other perfectly, and were deeply in love. The bond they had was something rare and special. So when a spaceship fell out of the sky with a child inside, they immediately adopted him without question. Quite a couple, huh?"
"Yes, they were amazing, weren't they?" replied Liz. "I guess I never thought about how brave they were to take in Kal-El… I mean Clark. Matthew told me that Jonathan and Martha loved their son deeply and were mostly responsible for instilling in him his sense of decency and responsibility . But he never mentioned how hard it was for them, or that Martha couldn't have any children. Everyone just sort of assumed that they chose not to have any more children."
"They were the best parents a boy could ask for," he said. "They loved him unconditionally. And when he started to develop his powers, they helped him deal with them. I shudder to think how Kal-El would have turned out if he had been found by less loving and brave people. They were as responsible for the creation of Superman as anyone else." Caleb expression was slightly sad now. He paused a moment before continuing.
"So Kal-El was given the name Clark Jerome Kent by his adopted parents and he was raised like any other normal Kansas boy. In his tenth year, he started to notice that he could hear from a great distance. Soon, his strength started to grow beyond what was humanly possible. His parents knew that they had to share with their son his true origins. Or at least as much as they knew. When they told him, Clark was terrified. One moment he was a normal ten year boy, and the next he was something else. They weren't really sure where he came from, just that he was different. That night, that ten year old boy cried himself to sleep in the arms of his mother."
"As his powers grew, his parents helped him adjust to them one by one. When he discovered his vision powers, his parents gave him glasses with leaded crystal in them, to help him control his abilities. At the same time they told him to hide his abilities from everyone else. They lived in fear that they would take their only son away from them. It made Clark feel like an outsider, even though he was well liked by his peers. He always had to hold back his true self from the rest of the world, and could only be himself with his parents."
Liz knew some of the facts of the story that was being told to her, but now she was hearing the emotions behind the story. Everyone in the world had the impression that Superman had been this supremely confident superhero. No one had guessed how difficult it had been for him while growing up. Or that all he wanted to do was to fit in and be like everyone else. This is what she had been searching for to put in her next book about Superman. But listening to Caleb telling the story, she knew that this was an intensely personal story and wasn't sure that Caleb wanted to share it with the rest of the world. She thought that it would be good for the world to know this about their hero. To know the sacrifices he and his family had made to help his adopted world. She heard him continuing the story.
"I'll skip the rest of the details of his childhood for later. He did go to college and graduate with a degree in journalism. He then started on his journeys around the world. By this time, he was fully practiced at flying and could travel anywhere in the world he wanted. He would go to a place that interested him, and quickly learn the customs and language. He would usually find a job writing in some capacity, either for a local paper, or for a wire service. But being Clark Kent, he couldn't ignore helping out with his special powers when he was needed. After a while, the people in an area would start to get suspicious of him, and he would move on, for fear of being discovered. So, for 5 years he would be a vagabond, moving from place to place, never staying anywhere longer than 6 months."
"I guess there's another misconception in my book," interjected Liz. "Everyone thought that Clark traveled the world to get some experience dealing with other cultures, to better prepare himself for being Superman."
Caleb snorted. "Hardly. Clark Kent didn't even get the idea of donning a costume until after he moved to Metropolis."
"You're kidding! Matthew told me that it was his plan all along to become Superman, he was just waiting until he was ready."
"No way," replied Caleb. "He got the idea for putting on the suit after he decided that he wanted to stay in Metropolis longer than 6 months."
"Why do I have the feeling that I'll need to rewrite my book after talking to you?" Liz asked. "Just how much of my book is right by the way? I was just curious to know."
Caleb had an embarrassed grimace on his face as he answered. "Well, maybe… I guess… 35%."
"I can't believe it! How could I have been so wrong! How could Matthew been so wrong?"
Caleb shrugged his shoulders. "Truthfully, Matthew always kind of glamorized the legend of Superman. I tried to set him straight a couple of times, but he wouldn't listen to me. I never knew that he was passing on his version of our family history to anyone."
Liz's eyes narrowed into, what many would call, the look of death. "You knew. You knew all along. You strung me along, and you knew exactly what I was searching for and where to find it. I guess that my book gave you a good laugh. HA HA. Look at the dumb archeologist. I'll just be cute and fool her for a while. That'll probably be funny."
"You know it wasn't like that. The last person I told all this to was my wife. No one, I mean no one, knows about me or my existence. You will be the only living person who knows the real me." Caleb's face bordered on an expression of challenge.
His words and expression took much of the anger out of Liz. She begrudgingly said to him, "I guess I understand. *Maybe* it would have been hard to tell me this right away. At least, you can tell me what I did get right about Clark Kent."
Caleb thought about it for a few seconds. "Well, he did come from another planet, he was gifted with super human abilities, and he did love Lois Lane. Everything goes downhill from there," he said with a sheepish grin.
"Great, I was thinking about a new career anyway. I can't believe I published something with so many errors, and that I trusted just one source for a majority of my information. How could I have done something like that? I was like some gawky superhero fan, willing to believe only the best about society's established legend. Clark Kent really was the first Superman, wasn't he? I'd just like to know that I got at least that right." Liz sat there dejectedly with her elbows on knees, and her head resting in her hands.
"Elizabeth, don't beat yourself up about this. Only a handful of people knew the true story about Clark Kent and how he became Superman. At some point, he decided not to say anything and 'go with flow' because it was just easier. Besides, it helped him keep up the illusion that Superman and Clark Kent were not the same person. No one would believe that Superman could have flaws like Clark did. In the end, all he really cared about was that he was free to help people as Superman."
"Thanks for saying that," she said to him without turning her head. "I don't feel any better, but thanks for saying it."
"Do you want me to go on?" he asked tentatively.
"Might as well, it can't get any worse."
"You'd be surprised," she heard him mutter. "I'm just going to hit the important parts that affect what I want to tell you the most. So I'll pick up where Clark arrives in Metropolis. He came to the city to look for a job at the Daily Planet. He was very na‹ve in many ways, despite the fact that he had just spent the last 5 years traveling the globe. He thought that if he was sincere enough and showed his best work, that he would be able to get a job at the Daily Planet. He was, of course, wrong. He could tell that Perry White was looking over the young greenhorn sitting in front of him with a good deal of skepticism. But right in the middle of his interview, the most critical event that had ever happened in his life occurred. Lois Lane walked… no stormed into Mr. White's office demanding that she be heard about a story she wanted to work on. To Clark it was like being struck by lightning. When Mr. White tried to introduce Lois to Clark, she barely registered his existence in the universe. After she left, Mr. White turned Clark down for a job. He left Mr. White's office dejected. He had not planned past the interview, so he wasn't sure what he was going to do next. The only thing that he was sure of was that he wanted find a way to get to know the woman who had stormed into his interview."
"Time out." Liz was making a time out 'T" signal with her hands. "Let me get this straight. Clark Kent, one of the greatest journalists ever to work for the Daily Planet was turned down for a job there? And Lois Lane didn't notice Clark the first time he met her? But their romance at the Planet was, well… legendary. How could she not notice him?"
"Clark was a just another kid off the street at that interview. He had shown up in a worn out suit and in need of a haircut and just expected everything to fall into place. He really was the quintessential country boy in the big city. Lucky for him he had paid attention enough to Perry's exchange with Lois to cover a story freelance for the Planet. It was that mood piece about the razing of the old theater you saw in the Smithsonian. Lois had thought it was beneath her to write. It was that story, and Clark's initiative to cover the story, which convinced Mr. White to change his mind and hire Clark."
"And as for Lois, he really had no clue how to approach someone like Lois Lane. Clark acted like an idiot with Lois sometimes. I'm surprised she put up with him at all. In the beginning of their friendship, he would often let pride and fear get in the way of giving Lois what she really needed — honesty and trust."
Liz was completely flustered at this point. She couldn't believe that Caleb was saying these things to her. Her gentle rancher was actually insulting the man who was probably the patriarch of his family and a legendary hero. "How can you say this about your … whatever he is to you. Clark Kent was a great man and a hero. He and Lois were married for over 70 years, so they must have loved each over very much. I'm shocked that you would have such an attitude, it seems so unlike you to attack someone like that."
Caleb seemed to think about it for a minute and then replied, "I'm just echoing Clark's own opinion. I know that he felt that he had wasted a lot of precious time with Lois in the beginning, because he was too thick-headed or too na‹ve to give her what she really needed." His mouth formed a crooked smile as he said, "You wouldn't believe how furious she was at him when she figured out that he was hiding the fact that he was also Superman from her."
Liz looked at him with a confused expression and asked, "She was mad at him? I thought… I mean everybody thinks that they decided to get married after he reveled himself to her." After a beat, Liz then exclaimed, "Wait a minute, wait a minute — she found out about him before he told her? I don't believe it. I thought that they, you know… that they always…" Finally she got out, "They were married, weren't they?" She had an almost panicked tone in her voice.
"Yes, they were actually married, but they didn't get engaged the night she let him know that she had already figured out that he was Superman. In fact, he even broke up with her once 'for her own safety' before she finally asked him to marry her."
"She asked him? Of course, that makes sense. It had to be that way since I told it another way."
Caleb's face had a slightly guilty look as he said, "Maybe I should jump ahead a bit to stuff that's not in your book. I'm starting to feel a little guilty about all of this."
That broke Liz out of her self-recriminating mood. "Don't feel guilty, Caleb. I'm just kind of shocked that all of my preconceived notions are being shot down. Go ahead and tell me everything and I won't worry about what I believed before." She was now anxious to hear how Caleb fit into the Kent family history. Though she wasn't sure why he was giving the details of Clark's life.
"Sure," he replied. "You see, Clark was just a regular guy. Well a regular guy with super powers. He wasn't infallible, he wasn't perfect. He just tried to do his best. He never really felt that he lived up to the icon that the world had made him into. It killed him whenever he couldn't save someone. Especially when it was a child. It was hard to carry the body of a five-year-old out of burning building and look the mother in her eyes and tell her that he wasn't able to save him."
"People always looked to him as if he could do anything, but he couldn't. Lois kept him sane, reminding him that he couldn't be everywhere, save everyone. But it still hurt to look into the eyes of that mother and tell her that this time you weren't fast enough, or strong enough. That, despite the fact that the world's most powerful man was there, her son still had died. He could see in her eyes the unspoken question — why could he save the others, but not her son? Then, he would watch her take her baby and cry uncontrollably over the lifeless body in her arms. It was as if someone had ripped his heart out. If he had been alone in the world, he never could have made it though experiences like that. His wife was the one who saved him from his despair time after time. And it never got easier for him, no matter how long he wore the suit."
Liz looked at his face, now clenched in a tight grimace. He obviously knew this experience from deep within his soul. Liz now suspected that the man she had been looking for was here in the room with her. She thought about what these revelations meant to her as she listened to them. She wondered if it might destroy her respect for the superhero and his family, knowing their imperfections. But thinking about it, she realized that she respected them even more.
They were not the perfect beings that legend had made them out to be. They were just people with special gifts, who had sacrificed to give themselves to the world. Clark Kent was not just the hero of legend. He was a brave, but flawed man, who just wanted to have a normal life, but often gave up that dream to help others. He had spent his whole life fighting the good fight, saving the world from disasters, from evil, and even from itself, and was often rewarded only with heartache. His one true reward was the private satisfaction of knowing that he had helped. He could have demanded much from the world, but asked for nothing. She hoped that someday Caleb would let her share this with others, so everyone could know what the Kent family had really given the world.
Caleb regained his composure and continued with the story. "I'm going to jump ahead to right after Lois and Clark were married and had to deal with Veda Doodsen and her life force device. Doodsen had transferred Jimmy Olsen's life force to an elderly criminal, temporarily rejuvenating the criminal, and causing Jimmy to age rapidly, almost to the point of death. After capturing Doodsen, Clark, or should I say Superman, used the device to transfer part of his life force to Jimmy, erasing the aging effects and restoring his youth. However to counteract the effects of the device, Clark's body had to use a vast amount of the solar energies that he had been storing for almost 29 years. Those reserves of solar energy are what had helped his body stabilize his own aging process. So after giving his life energy to Jimmy, he started aging at close to a normal human rate."
"At least this part I knew. That was the reason that Clark aged faster than his sons. It was a tremendous sacrifice he made to save the life of his friend."
Caleb shook his head and said, "Actually, Clark didn't consider it a sacrifice at all. In fact he was happy that he would grow old with his wife. The thought of outliving her was… terrifying to him." Liz could see him hesitate, and she knew that he must be thinking of his own wife and the fact that he outlived her. She moved closer to him on the couch and placed her hand on his forearm. "Go on Caleb."
"Well they became a typical married couple. At least as typical as you can get in a Kryptonian / Human marriage. They made mistakes along the way, but they both loved each other deeply. Of course you know that they had two sons, Jon and CJ. Jon took over for Clark as the next Superman. Not quite as fast or strong, but enough to be a superhero. Then Jon's son and daughter, Kyle and Martha, picked up the reigns from him. CJ never got into the hero bit. He was satisfied using his powers in a subtler manner in his job as a police detective. He would have hated going public as Kyle and Martha did during the peace talks. He was a good man, but he never could handle the publicity very well. In that respect, he was a lot like his father."
Caleb got that wistful look in his eyes again before continuing. "He was devastated when Mary and the kids were killed in the accident. He wasn't ever really the same again. You were right about him moving to Australia. And being a Kent, he couldn't help using his powers to save people in trouble. But he could never become a public super hero. He did remarry when he was in his sixties, though he and his wife never had children."
That really got Liz's attention. If CJ never had any children, then what was Caleb's relationship to Clark Kent? She was sure that she accounted for all of Clark's descendants. She must have missed someone. So who was Caleb? She noticed that Caleb, had stopped speaking and had a worried look on his face. "Is something wrong?" she asked him.
"This is where it gets hard. It's where my story picks up."
He looked so nervous to her. "Caleb, whatever your past is, we'll work though it. You were right about that kiss, it was very mutual. And I want us to get to know each other much better. I care about who you are, and what's in your heart. Whatever was in your past, it can't be bad if it made you the man you are today." She took his hand and raised it to her lips, softly kissing it.
He leaned his head over until their foreheads were touching and whispered, "I hope you feel that way when I'm done."
He straightened up in the couch and gave a big sigh. "OK, here goes. Clark continued to perform Superman duties in some form for the next 60 years. On their 60th anniversary, Clark told Lois that he had officially retired from everything, and that he would spend as much time as possible with her. They moved away from the Metropolis and setup a house for themselves in a secluded spot in Southern California. Clark had aged about the same as his wife, and they both were approaching their 90th birthday. Even aging at a normal rate, the cumulative effects of 60 years of being close to Clark's aura, had left Lois in great shape. They had another 14 years together, before Lois passed away just after her 102nd birthday. After 74 years of marriage, Clark was lost without her. His only solace was the fact that he would be soon joining her. But that was not to be."
Liz could see the teardrop fall down Caleb's cheek. He obviously was reliving his own pain at the passing of his wife. She wanted desperately to wipe away his tears and let him know that he was loved again. She pulled his head down on to her shoulder as she softly spoke to him. "I'm here for you. Everything will be better. Just let me be here for you." She kept speaking to him while stroking his hair.
"After he laid her to rest, he returned to their house and waited for his chance to join her at the steps of heaven. But after a while, he started to notice something about himself. At 103, even a Superman gets the aches and pains that come with old age. But he noticed that the normal aches and pains were starting to subside slowly. He didn't think much about it at first, but after a few years, he discovered that he was starting to feel better instead of worse. Eventually he deduced that absorbing the sun's energies, without continually using his super powers had restabilized his aging process. Not wanting anyone to get suspicious, he arranged for his house to be consumed in a spectacular fire, big enough so that nothing would remain. His grandchildren swore that Clark was in the house at the time of the fire, and Clark Kent was declared dead at the amazing age of 110." Caleb chuckled in an ironic tone and said, "In reality, he picked his favorite deserted island and decided to get away from the world. He was tired of playing the perfect superhero, and in truth just didn't have the motivation anymore without Lois. The Earth was in good hands, and there were enough heroes to stand guard over the world. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren knew where he was, and the parts of the family who could fly would visit him from time to time."
Liz broke in for a moment. "That's why Clark Kent was still alive at the Centennial celebration. So his body had stopped aging again in his eighties, no wonder he didn't look a day over 75 at the ceremony. After what you told me, it must have been very hard for him to reveal himself to the world."
"It was in some ways, and in some ways it wasn't," he replied. "He had of course been helping out undercover during the war, doing whatever he could. In the end though, he really had no choice. He needed to give the world the nudge it needed to get on the path to peace. He had seen too much death to let it go on and not do anything. So in the end, there wasn't really any big internal struggle. He simply did what he had to do. He didn't feel like he had any other choice."
Liz didn't know what to think at this point. The account she was hearing was a very personal one. She had studied the ritual of oral histories that were part of some of the old Earth cultures. Father would pass, word for word, the history and feelings of those who came before them. She now had the feeling that the history books had the final fate of Clark Kent wrong. And that Caleb knew that fate of his… what?… great-grandfather, great-great grandfather? "Clark Kent didn't die that day, did he?" she asked him point blank.
"No, he didn't," he replied softly. "After he achieved several times the required escape velocity, he released bomb and let its own momentum carry it away from the Earth. He sped back to make sure that there were no more devices that could threaten the crowd of bystanders. Searching from the air, well out of sight of anybody, he searched the entire area and found nothing. He then flew off and decided to remain in hiding, and watch what events would unfold. He watched the world unite after that incident, and decided to leave the world in the capable hands of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Further generations of his family also took leadership roles in the world, helping to stabilize his adopted planet. He was satisfied that the world now needed super ideals, rather than super powers, so he let the world think that he had died in space with the bomb. He found a quiet place to live and was happy to relax for the first time in a century. Of course, his quiet life was always tainted by the sadness of being alone."
Liz couldn't wait any longer and she had to ask, "Have you met him… talked to him? Is this how you know so much?"
Caleb quietly chuckled to himself. "Don't worry, I'll get to that. Where was I? …Oh yes, I know… After the Centennial incident and the signing of the peace accords, Clark lived in solitude, not even his family knowing that he was still alive. He would meet them from time to time in disguise, but to the world and his family, Clark Kent and Superman were dead. This was the way it remained for the next twenty years. Occasionally, he would use his powers incognito, but for the most part the world had enough heroes to be her guardians. But the universe was not to leave Clark Kent alone. For the next twenty years, he used his super powers only minimally, which allowed his body to redirect the solar energies he absorbed every day into repairing the damage that the life force device had done to him over a century before. He began to notice little things, like his hair getting darker and thicker, and some of the wrinkles on his face disappearing. Gradually over a period of five years, his body had redirected enough of the solar energy to repair all of the damage that had been caused by Doodsen's device. By his 152nd birthday, Clark had regained the vast stores of solar energy that he had when he had started his career as Superman."
Liz now was growing more apprehensive about where this story was going. If Clark Kent had been healed from the effects of Doodsen's device, then it was entirely possible that he was still alive. It was even possible that he was the man in black, operating again as an incognito superhero. And Caleb was… what? One of his 7th or 8th generation descendants? It was even possible that Clark Kent had assumed a new identity and had started a new family and Caleb was his son. Her heart started beating faster, as the possibilities ran though her head more rapidly than she could process them. He could even be…
Finally she blurted out, "Where is Clark Kent now?" The final possibility was the most startling of all. Caleb got up from the couch and softly said, "I need to show you something before I go on. I'll be back in a minute." He walked over to a door to another room and disappeared through it. Liz closed her eyes and tried to force herself to calm down, taking slow, deep breaths.
'Can I handle what he's about to tell me?' She thought to herself. She was overwhelmed by the feelings and thoughts going through her mind. When Caleb reentered the room she jumped up from the couch to face him. He now looked different. In the short space of a few minutes, he had shaved off his beard and had trimmed his hair so he no longer had a pony tail. She looked into his eyes and saw the apprehension to how she was going to react.
Her mind raced at the sight of him. Every piece now fell into place and she now knew the truth. She watched him nervously shove his hands into his pockets and look at the ground. Without lifting his eyes to her, he asked, "Do you know the rest?"
In a hoarse whisper, she said, "I think I can guess… Clark."
Her statement hung in the air between them, neither one of them knowing who should speak next. Finally he broke the silence by saying, "I see you guessed the rest. So, how do you feel about me being… me?"
Liz fell back down on the couch. She stared straight ahead, refusing to look at him. "So, I guess that answers my question on how you were able to save me that night." Her voice had an eerily calm, almost detached tone. "And I also assume that you're the 'man in black', so we don't have to keeping looking for him."
"Um… right," Clark answered hesitantly.
"Good, that's one less thing to worry about," she said, still with a detached tone. She slowly looked over the room once again and said, "So this is all your stuff. That's nice. You can show it all to me sometime. I bet Dr. Risse will be jealous when he knows I got to see all of this. Of course that doesn't really matter anymore since he's trying to kill me… us." She finished her sentence with a small sigh.
Scowling a little, Liz then asked, "There is one thing I'd like to know. Why did you use all that Tae Kwon Do stuff to knock those guys out? I'm not criticizing, mind you. I mean you, of all people, must know what you are doing. I was just curious, that's all. I guess that you could have just tied those guys up at super speed or something like that. You used to do that all the time, didn't you? Now that I think about it, you probably don't even really know any Tae Kwon Do, do you?"
Clark had a worried expression on his face, taken aback by the absolute calm in Liz's voice. Slowly he replied, "Well… to answer your first question, I needed to subdue those guys without revealing myself. After a couple of hundred years using these powers, I have pretty good control over what I can do. I'm able to use just the right amount of force when needed, and no more. When I was younger, I used to get into so much trouble by thinking that my mere presence would be enough. Then the bad guys would pull something on me, or threaten someone else. I'm way past the 'just scowl and fold my arms' routine. It's easier just to 'knock them out' if it's necessary, especially if I don't want to reveal myself. Super speed is good if I can remain anonymous, like in disguise or in the suit.
"As to the second question, I actually do know Tae Kwon Do," he said with a grin. "Lois taught it to me a long time ago. She said I was getting too lazy depending only on my super powers."
"Lois taught it to you. That was nice of her." Liz sighed and smiled slightly, contemplating his answer.
* CLICK *
Liz suddenly shot off the couch again. She looked at Clark wide-eyed and shouted, "OH MY GOD! Lois taught you." Then after a beat, "You're Clark Kent. The Clark Kent. Superman. The original. The guy with all the awards. They make statues of you. You're … you're … the guy I wrote my book about. The legend."
By this point, Liz was pacing and gesturing wildly as she spoke. "How can you be him? No wait, forget the question, you just told me. But… But… You … I mean we… in your house. We did that… and you're him!"
She stopped her pacing for a moment and pointed at him. "You cooked breakfast for me. For me. You did. And you're him. I've got to sit down." Instead though, Liz started pacing back and forth across the room again.
"Elizabeth, I know that this is a lot to take in but I just wanted you to know…"
She cut him off and continued her tirade interrupting him in mid-sentence. "No, this isn't a lot to take in. Not at all. I just find out that the only man I ever… well a man that I… who made me… well whatever you did to me, which I'm not going to discuss at this point… I find out that he's… well, you. Standing there, right in front of me." Then pulling another random thought from her head, she said, " I guess I don't have to ask if a floating sensation is a symptom of asphyxia , since I pretty well know now why I felt like that, don't I? At least that's one less thing I have to look into to."
"I don't understand…," Clark started to ask.
"Never mind — long story. Do you have a hair dryer?"
"Actually, no," he said with a guilty look.
"Of course not, wouldn't need one. So that's how my underwear got dry, I was wondering how you did that. Not that I was embarrassed, or anything like that. Well, to tell the truth I was a little, but it's better knowing that you probably did it with your eye thingies. Because I was fantasizing, um, imagining how you really did that. And now that I know, it makes sense, because… because… well because you're Superman." Liz finally losing some of her steam, said the last word very softly.
"No, I'm Clark Kent. Superman retired over 120 years ago."
"But you're also Superman. The guy who saved our planet. How could this happen? Why me? I'm just… me. You, and Lois, are heroes to the whole planet. People write stories about you, they name parks after you,… your life is an interactive game! I wrote that book about you, how you…"
Suddenly Clark shouted, "NO! Elizabeth stop! Listen to me, please." Then softly, he continued, "I am *not* a legend. I am not an icon. I'm just a guy who wanted… who wants to help the best way I know how. Even Lois didn't understand that when she first met me as Superman. I was the hero on the pedestal. I was expected never to make mistakes. Never to be human, perfect in every way. Do you understand what's that like for me? All I really wanted was just to have a normal life — a job, a family, someone to love… and, sure, to use my gifts to help out when I can."
Clark's voice now grew much softer. "But you know what you didn't have in your book? How many mistakes I made along the way. Because, I may be from Krypton, but deep down, I'm only human. I made a ton of mistakes with Lois. And don't get me started on the stupid way I handled that asteroid. Let's just say you have Lois and my parents to thank for saving the planet, as much as me. Superman may be a legend, but I'm just a man. By the way, a man who has started to fall in l…"
"Don't." Liz said suddenly. "Don't say it. I couldn't handle that this very second." She faced away from him at the moment, unable to look at him. For a while, she didn't know what she could say after her outburst. She needed him to understand that she wasn't rejecting him outright. It was just too much for her. How was she going to reconcile her feelings for Caleb to the heroic image she had of Clark Kent? Her tone softened as she said hesitantly, "This is a lot to take in Caleb… Clark."
She turned to him and asked, "Which is it? Are you Caleb or Clark?"
"Well I'm… me. Just because I call myself Caleb doesn't change who I am. I just changed my name to protect my privacy, and frankly to avoid the hero worship. I always hated that aspect of being Superman. But these past few days that I've been with you, I never pretended about who I am, deep down inside. I just left out one small detail." He winced a little at his last sentence.
"One… small… detail… You call that one small detail?"
"All right, one big detail. But we've only known each other for three days and I've shared something with you that I haven't shared with anyone in a very long time. It's not like it's something I share with everyone I meet."
"Well, yes, I can understand that," Liz replied. "But you have to understand that it's a little overwhelming to me. Plus I have to throw out years of preconceptions about you." Liz suddenly switched gears and asked, "So are you going to live forever now? I did notice a little gray in your hair. Did you do that on purpose?"
Clark smiled a little at her questions. "No, it's natural gray. Actually Bernie, I'm sorry Dr. Klein, told me I should live to about 300. So I was due for a little gray by now."
"Oh," she said in a small voice. "I was just wondering."
"So, what do you want to do now? Do you want to ask me anything? Do you want me to take you anywhere?" Then with a little trepidation he asked, "Do you think there's a chance for us?"
That caused Liz to pause for a moment. She didn't know how to answer him right at the moment. A few minutes ago she thought of Clark Kent, of Superman, as the stuff of legends.
Now, suddenly, he was the guy in front of her—the man who made her breakfast, who told her silly jokes, and rode horses with her. She didn't know how to deal with all of this. She was torn between wanting to give her heart to the man she had started to fall in love with, and being intimidated by the man who was a mythical hero.
She knew how she felt, in her heart. But, could her feelings for him overcome the reality of who he was, and where he had come from? There were obstacles that prevented her from readily giving her heart to him. Actually two large obstacles. One was the obvious devotion he had to his late wife. She knew how much he had loved Lois, both from the tales of their legendary romance, and from what she had witnessed the previous night under the stars at his house. Her father had taught her that the memory of a late wife, one as cherished by her husband as Lois had been, haunts a man long after she is gone. In Clark's case, it had haunted him for over 120 years.
Her mom had been a brave woman to break through those kinds of memories with her dad. Did she have that kind of courage? She did hear Clark say goodbye to his wife that night, and he had done it because of her. But could she live up to that kind of love… that kind of devotion? It was daunting to think that such a man, with that kind of love and passion, would finally release his grief, just for her.
The second obstacle was the vast differences in their past experiences and how they lived now. He was not just from another planet, but he was also from another era. He had grown up over two hundred years ago, and had created a living legend when he chose to become Superman. She had listened carefully to his life story when he had shared it. Looking back on it, she could see that he had carefully chosen the parts of his life that emphasized his feelings, not just giving her the factual highlights. It was obvious that he didn't consider himself to be Superman. Superman had been a mask he hid behind, so that he could be himself. Even now he hid himself behind a mask, the man in black, not wanting people to know that Superman was still here, helping where and when he could. He didn't want the glory, praise, or rewards. He just wanted to help the best way he knew how. His picture of his real self was that of the ex- farmer turned journalist, and later recluse rancher.
Looking at him now, she remembered how she had facetiously thought of Caleb… Clark, creating his own culture in his solitude, combining various bits and pieces of past and present. But she was from another culture — the new, gentle society in which people believed that they had created some sort Utopia. But some of what Clark felt and remembered from his past had been lost or discarded along the way to this Utopia. She recalled the music he had played for her at his house, music that had been lost through the years. She could understand why he lived as he did, feeling more alien because of the separation of time, rather than the fact that he was from another planet.
They were like two people from vastly different cultures. How would he fare if he entered her world? Could she live in his? Could their emerging feelings find a place to meet and grow, despite their differences? At the moment she didn't have an answer for him.
She saw that he was waiting for her to say something. She wanted to choose her next words very carefully. She might not be ready for a full relationship, but she didn't want to lose him just yet.
"Well, first I'd like to know if I should call you Clark."
He said with a shy smile, "Truthfully I always considered that to be my real name. So it would be nice if you used it."
"All right, Clark," she replied, returning his shy smile with one of her own. "I don't want to make any decisions about us right away. I need time to take all of this in. It's a little overwhelming to me. But I don't want to just walk away from you either. So maybe we can just be together as friends for a while and see what happens from there. Besides, we still have those bad guys to catch."
Clark's face broke into a full grin as he said, "Don't worry, I'll give you all the time you need to get used to me. I don't want to repeat the worst couple of mistakes I made last time I started a relationship. I think I learned at least a couple of things in the last two hundred years. And I've taken care of the first one since I didn't wait two years to tell you about my… other side. I won't repeat the second one by not giving you all the time you need. Besides, it wouldn't hurt me to have a little time getting used to the idea of loving someone again. I may be a little rusty."
"I wouldn't know about that," Liz said softly under her breath.
Clark chuckled and told her, "One thing you should get used to if you're going to be hanging around with me. Super hearing pretty much kills the effectiveness of muttering under your breath."
Liz gasped. "You rat, that's not fair at all."
"It's not something I can really help. I still haven't completely figured out why my hearing kicks in without any conscious thought on my part. I once thought it might have to do with my telepathic abilities, but I have no way to be sure."
"Oh no, don't tell me you can really read my mind," Liz said, panicked.
"No, I can only perform active communication with other Kryptonians. I just thought maybe I had this subconscious thing going. I always did seem to sense when Lois was in trouble." Then after a couple seconds of thought he asked, "Just why would you be worried about that?" Liz could see the mischievous look in his eyes once again.
"None of your business. For now, anyway." She matched his mischievous grin with an evil one of her own.
"Oh boy, am I in trouble?"
"We'll see. But later," she said. "For now it looks like we're friends, right?"
"Maybe a little more than just friends?" he asked hopefully.
"Hmmm. That sounds about right," she agreed. "We're just- a-little-more-than-friends friends. Besides I don't have any 'just friends' who can curl my toes with a kiss." She covered her mouth with her hand as she realized what she had just said.
Now he was beaming a full, joyful smile that seems to light up the whole room for her. "I'm glad it affected you the same way. I didn't want to think that the feelings I had were one-sided."
They both stood there, staring into one another's eyes. The prior tension had somewhat dissipated. They were interrupted by the ringing of a wall-mounted Comm unit. Clark blinked in surprise, but then recovered after a moment. "Answer Comm, audio mode."
Liz could hear the voice of the "answer girl" come through the unit. "Hello Caleb. I got some real juicy stuff for you, honey. You're going to owe me big time for this. Looks like I might get that dinner after all."
Clark began to say, "Shir¡, I appreciate you doing this, but…"
Liz, not being able to stand it anymore, broke in. "Listen, 'honey', while WE appreciate the help, Cl… Caleb's dinner engagements are all booked for the foreseeable future. So, could you get down to business, because we need to go out and catch some bad guys."
Clark turned and looked at her with a Spock-like raised eyebrow. Shir¡ could be heard through the Comm Unit saying, "Caleb, you dog." Then addressing Liz she said, "Listen girl, I've been working on breaking down those Montana walls for over 2 years now. I know I don't really 'do it' for him. But I'm glad someone broke through. So, don't worry I won't be violating your territory, now that I know it's… he's yours." Then Shir¡ voice grew very serious as she said, "But if you break his heart, you'll answer to *me*."
Liz was genuinely fearful at the tone of her last statement. However, she knew that she'd rather die first, than break Clark's heart. "Don't worry, I'll be good to him."
"That's all I need to know. Now for the info you're looking for. First, the two goons Caleb took care of are from L.A., and are part of some mysterious club. I dug up some information on this so-called club. They meet in secret at least once a week, but they have no clear purpose. But, here's the good part: one of the founding members wrote several papers and editorials asking for a return to the principals of…"
"…Nazi Germany of the second world war," Clark finished.
"Very good. I take it you've done some of your own patented homework," Shir¡ stated.
"Not really, we've just been piecing together things that have been happening to us over the past few days," he replied. "And let me make another guess — the prominent member of this club is one Dr. Risse of U.C.L.A."
"You sure you still need me?" Shir¡ asked, the sarcasm in her voice evident.
"Yes, I am. What about the second set that tried to break out the first two?"
"Well, now it starts to get interesting. One of them was another member of the same club. However the other guy had no records whatsoever. He's a ghost according to official records."
"And according to your vast resources, he is…?" Clark asked.
"He's an ex-marine by the name of Jesse Rogers. Dishonorable discharge for conduct unbecoming an officer. Apparently he was taking military supplies and rerouting them to private warehouses where he would sell them to commercial companies. The military would have never suspected anything, being the trusting organization they are these days, except that some lieutenant stumbled upon it because of, what she thought were, 'bookkeeping errors'. After his discharge, ex-Major Rogers was reported killed in a hover accident. About 2 months later, all his records disappeared."
"There's more. It seems that the lieutenant who had discovered his operation ended up dead also, under, what the police called, 'mysterious circumstances'. And the two guys that you captured at your house had similar stories as Rogers. Both were caught doing something very bad, and then were reported dead. After a couple of months, all their records would go poof."
Clark was rubbing his chin, deep in concentration. "This is serious. It takes a lot of authority to make all records like that disappear without a trace. More than this little Hitler club has, that's for sure. Unless… Shir¡, any 'club' members connected enough to make that happen?"
Shir¡ replied, "I already checked on that. The highest ranking member seems to be this Risse character. And all he brings to the party is a lot of cash. But he doesn't have the kind of connections to pull off this kind of stuff. I get the impression that all of these guys from this club are real amateurs."
Shir¡ continued, "Now the hired muscle, on the other hand, they're probably connected to the person with the real pull. But whoever they are, they've covered their trail better than I can track them down." Liz could almost picture Shir¡ pouting at that last statement.
"That is definitely not good," Clark said. "What about the Mark 7's?"
"This is the strangest part of all. Only about a couple of dozen people know where they are stored. And only half of them can open the vault. Now this was kept under wraps, but my sources tell me that the Mark 7's were stolen out of the vault by someone who didn't have access. It seems that the vault door was ripped open by a device they can't identify. They couldn't find any energy or explosive traces around the door. So it had to be a very sophisticated device, on par with the technology of the Mark 7's. One theory is that it was commercial spies from some hi-tech company looking to get access to the technology for profit. Heaven forbid they think that there are any enemies to the U.S. left in the world," Shir¡ said with a sneer in her voice.
Shir¡ continued before Clark could say anything. "Listen Caleb, these are serious guys. If you're going to be involved, you better get some backup. And unless she's a professional, you might want to get your new girlfriend out of harm's way, and not get her involved in this anymore."
"Actually, Elizabeth was already involved by the time we met. But thanks for the advice. And Shir¡, I do owe you, though I won't be able to pay you back the way you want."
"Caleb, I already owe you too much to start an accounting now. If you're happy, then I will be satisfied. Watch your back, and call me if you need anything else." Shir¡ broke the connection without waiting for any further reply from Clark.
"I assume you'll explain to me why she 'owes you' one of these days," Liz said to him, her look a little on the suspicious side.
"Well I saved her father's life awhile back. It's how she knows me." Changing subjects he then said, "Elizabeth, Shir¡ was right. Whomever we're dealing with is very serious. Serious enough to kill when they want. I should get you someplace safe until I can figure all of this out."
Elizabeth stood there with her arms crossed, looking very irritated at him. "And just what happened to you needing backup? If these guys are coming after you — and I mean the 'man in black' you — then they must have something dangerous enough to hurt you. I'm not going to just let these goons point some anti-Kryptonian weapon at your thick skull… and I do mean thick skull in the worst way… all by yourself. We need to think this out carefully and have some backup plans ready. One that involves me helping, or at least calling in the Cavalry when they're needed."
Clark stared at her for a moment with a blank expression on his face, then started to laugh while shaking his head.
"And just what is so amusing?" she asked, getting even more irritated by his reaction.
Stifling his laughter, he replied. "Nothing really, sweetie. I just have to guess that you've gotten past some your old preconceptions of me."
Realizing the meaning of his statement, she replied with a thoughtful expression, "I guess I have." Then, a few seconds later her expression turned a little leery and raising one eyebrow, she simply asked, "Sweetie?"
With a guilty look, he said, "Oops. Sorry. Is that too much for just-a-little-more-than-friends friends?"
She tortured him appropriately for a few moments by appearing to contemplate his question. "Well… I'll let it go for now. It might grow on me." She gave him another evil grin.
"So, Dr. Ellington, what's your suggestion for a plan?"
"First, we need to establish who our backup will be if I do need to call in the Calvary. Does this Shir¡ person have enough connections to call in someone who can help us, if things get sticky?"
"She has the connections to call in the Army and the Marines if we need them. But we may need to call in something more immediate when we need them. I think we should call in the Marshal on this. I can trust her, and she can call in immediate help if we need it. So is that enough backup?"
"That'll do for now," Liz replied. She started pacing again, deep in thought. "The next thing we'll need to plan is how we're going to find these people, or person, who're behind all of this. Do you think you could get access to the vault to sniff around for clues? Maybe Shir¡ has some connections to get us in."
She had stopped pacing and looked at Clark. He was just standing there looking at her with a— the word 'loving' came to mind— look on his face. She put her hands on her hips and asked, "Why are you just standing there with a dopey expression on your face? I thought a superhero would be more of a help at this point."
Broken out of his reverie by her question, he replied, "It's been a long time since I had a real partner to help me out. It feels really good to have one again."
His statement took a little of the wind out of her sails. 'O.K., I can't let my feelings run away from me. We need to get through this business first,' she thought. Composing herself she said, "Well just you remember that, buster, next time you think about dumping me anywhere."
"Yes ma'am," he answered in mock military fashion.
"So now, back to business. How much clout does Caleb have? Can he… you get a peak at that vault."
"No, I don't think, as Caleb, I would be able to get close enough to that vault. And not even Shir¡ has enough pull to get us in. But I've been considering something else since this morning. I haven't thought about it for a long time since crime is almost non-existent these days. But now, I don't know anymore. Some nasty characters are coming out of the woodwork, and it looks like it's more than just a few random acts."
Clark then stopped talking as he deliberated something silently. Liz, not wanting to be left out, demanded, "Any chance you'll share what you're thinking about?"
Clark looked at her with a very serious expression and said, "I do know someone the authorities would let investigate this, no questions asked. I think it may be time to… resurrect someone. You tell me if you approve."
Before Liz could say anything Clark started to rapidly spin in place, burring with the motion. After a few seconds he stopped. She was looking at him with amazement. While she knew that the man in front of her had to be Clark, he somehow looked more heroic… larger than life.
Before her, dressed in red, blue, and yellow, stood the Man of Steel, the hero from the pages of her book. When he spoke to her, his voice seem to have deepened. "Maybe it's time for Superman to get back on the job. What do you think?"
Dr. Elizabeth Ellington, world renowned scientist, explorer, and archeologist, deliberated carefully for a full 30 seconds before uttering her well-crafted response.
Liz just stared at him after her single word reaction, her eyes approximately the size of saucers. After a few minutes Liz finally got out in a whisper, "Superman."
Clark looked at her perplexed and stammered out, "Yes I am… I thought we just went over this. I'm sorry, this surprised you too much, didn't it? Maybe I should have taken it a bit slower."
"Surprised? Well, yes… that's one word you could use. I know we've just been talking about it, and I really did believe you. But to see you do that. To see you dressed in your… what do you call it?"
"The suit," Clark replied.
"Yes, the suit. Well it's a little… shocking to see you do that. Talking about it is one thing, but seeing it is… is… well it just hit me again, who you really are." She saw he was about to say something, but stopped him by holding up a hand to him and saying, "Wait, don't say anything just yet." Looking at the ground she tried to compose herself before saying the next thing.
"Listen," she said as she raised her eyes to him. "I understand about who you are, who you consider yourself to be. But you have to understand how I feel right now. This is very hard for me. I need to reconcile my images of Superman with the man I met a few days ago. I want to be able to look at the real you. But seeing you do that now… seeing you in that suit, it just brings back thoughts of you as this bigger than life legend."
His posture began to stiffen and she could tell how uncomfortable he was becoming. "But, Clark, you need to give me a little time to see if I can handle all of this. And I have to be honest here, it's more than just the Superman thing." She paused a moment before voicing her next question. "Do you want me to be completely honest with you Clark?"
"Sure I do." He seemed to relax a bit as she asked that.
"I have to see if I can handle the kind of life and…" She hesitated at the next word. It was just a word, but it was an important one. One that would color everything they said to one another, from this point forward. She knew that right here, right now she needed to decide if she had the courage to say this next word. It scared her. Scared her more than the men who had threatened her life.
Liz licked her lips and finished very softly, "… and the kind of love you offer. I mean, it took you 120 years to say good bye to Lois. It's a little intimating to live up to that kind of devotion… that kind of love. I didn't think that kind of love and passion existed in this world anymore. I don't know if I can…" she turned from him, afraid that her emotions would completely run away from her. 'Damn him, anyway. Why did he do this to me?'
She then felt the tentative touch of his fingers on her chin. 'Amazing,' she thought, 'all that power, and his touch is like the brush of butterfly wings on my chin.'
She felt a gentle pressure urging her to look in his direction. She reluctantly allowed her head to be turned so that she was looking into eyes. What she saw was not the stern eyes of the hero, but the soft brown eyes of a man pleading himself to her.
"Elizabeth," he said to her gently, "you don't have to be anything but who you are — the woman that I kissed this morning. I want nothing more, and nothing less of you. I admit that it has been a little hard for me too. I haven't felt this way in a long time. In fact I never thought I would have these kinds of feelings again. But right now I can't imagine anything else in world I would rather do, than to find a way to love you. Maybe it's just me, or maybe it's some weird Kryptonian ability I don't know about, but I seemed to know from the start that there was something deep down inside of me that you touched. I tried fighting it, but I couldn't."
"Since we're being honest here, I have to admit to you that yesterday I woke up a little guilty, because for the first time in… well you know… I thought about someone else other than Lois. I thought about you. *You* were in my thoughts. And I believe that she would think that's all right."
"Just in case you're wondering," he continued, "I don't want you to be Lois. I will never forget her, but you're the one I'm having these feelings for now. You have nothing to live up to. I think you're wonderful just the way you are. I know it's going to take a little time for each of us to adjust. Besides, you never know, you may hang around with me for a few days and decide I'm too… different to live with. You may not want to handle this dual existence I seemed doomed to. I'm not perfect you know. Contrary to popular belief…" He paused for a second to give his next statement effect.
"…I'm only human," he finished with a mischievous grin.
Liz raised a skeptical eyebrow at his last statement. "I see. Well the same goes for me. You may get disillusioned after a couple of days with me too. I haven't told you about all my bad qualities yet." She could feel herself relaxing as they both fell into a teasing mode.
"I suppose you don't cook." It was more a statement than a question..
She chuckled at that. "Who does anymore? Why did you ask that?"
"I just seem to be destined to be the cook in the family, I'll tell you later. So do you leave dirty clothes on the floor? Snore? Beat small animals for fun?
She crossed her arms and indignantly replied, "No, No, and No. Do you?"
"Hmmmm… Not often, I hope not, and never."
"Well does that mean you're willing to give me a shot?" she asked with a haughty expression.
With a smile he replied, "I guess you'll do. How about you, want to give me a shot?"
"Ditto… for now. I just have to see if you behave yourself," she replied with a regal tone.
During their teasing Clark had moved closer to Liz. He leaned over and whispered in her ear, "You know this is the part where the hero gets to kiss the fair maiden." She could hear the smile in his voice as his breath touched her ear, giving her a small shiver down her back.
"Hey this is the 22nd century you know." She tried to sound indignant, but couldn't prevent her voice from having a breathless quality when she asked, "What if she doesn't want to be kissed?"
"Then I guess he needs to asks permission," he said in a serious, but soft tone.
She looked straight into his eyes and said softly back, "Permission granted."
He gathered her up in his arms and kissed her. She could hear him moan slightly into her mouth as their kiss deepened. She could feel it again, their hearts and souls entwining through their kiss. When they broke the kiss, he continued to plant small kisses on her face and down her neck. It felt like small electric tingles everywhere his lips would touch her skin. She remembered back, with a small amount of guilt, to when she was a teenager and would have daydreams of being in the arms of a hero like this. Now her daydreams were becoming reality. "Hmmm… I wonder if I should feel guilty about thinking like that? Naw… no use in ruining a perfectly good fantasy come true.' She chuckled softly at her thought.
She could hear Clark say in a husky voice, "Am I tickling you there?"
"No, no. Not at all." She noted that her voice seemed to have detached quality in it. 'Oh well, I'll become coherent later.'
He then pulled away her neck, and looked up as if he was concentrating on something off in the distance. "I have to go, there's trouble at the prison again." He then stepped back and said, "Computer, open flight hatch 1. Copy all command authorizations to Elizabeth Ellington." She heard the computer give him a verbal acknowledgement of his commands. He looked at her and said, "OK, you'll be able to give any command you want to the computer. I'll be back as soon as …"
Liz grabbed him by the arm for a moment to prevent him from taking off. "Oh no you don't buddy. I told you I'm not going to let you do this alone. Shall I review the 'thick skulled' portion of my commentary? You can't go there alone, you don't know if they have something ready for you or not. If you don't take me yourself, I'll just jump in the hover and follow you there." She stood there glaring at him, her arms crossed, her face full of determination.
He shook his head at her, and muttered something about being doomed and high maintenance. He then motioned her to stand next to him. "Well if you're coming, let's go. I need to get there fast so I'm going to have to wrap you for the trip."
He placed his hands on her arms. Suddenly the whole world began to spin. When they stopped she was pressed up against his body, his cape completely encasing her except for a small space for her to see and breath. "Get ready, this is going to be a fast takeoff," he said. Suddenly the world blurred in front of her, and she felt like she was shot out of a cannon. Before she could catch her breath, she could see that they were already high in the air, among the clouds. The ground below them was passing by in a blur. 'He really meant it when he said he had to get there in a hurry.' It amazed her that she couldn't feel the force of the wind more. 'Well at least I got the part about his aura right in my book,' she thought.
After a couple of minutes, he made a quick change in direction and headed for the ground. She shut her eyes tightly at the sight of the ground approaching them at an impossible speed. Then it was over and they were standing on the ground again. After another quick spin, she disengaged from his cape and he had it in its proper place again. "Wow," she said with a shaky voice. "That was… Wow. Could we take that slower next time?"
Before she finished her question he was already gone. So fast was his exit, that the wake he created knocked her to her hands and knees. 'Well, I hope he' not that fast with everything,' she thought as she got to her feet. Mentally shaking herself she thought, 'I can't believe I actually thought that. I don't really need to go there right now. Where I need to go is that prison.' She looked over to her left and saw the prison facility down the hill.
She started slowly walking down the hill, her legs still a little wobbly from the quick flight. Looking toward the front of the prison, she noticed a number of official looking vehicles parked sidewise to the entrance of the main building. Behind the vehicles were several people, some in uniform, using the vehicles to block themselves from the building. 'This can't be good,' she thought. 'Now where did Clark go off to?' She scanned the area as she approached the vehicles with no success. Then after a thought, she raised her head and scanned the skies above the prison. There, hovering over the facility, was Clark. He appeared to be scanning the prison walls, then in an instant he was gone. She could hear a soft boom resonate from the direction where he had been.
As Liz continued towards the vehicles in front of the building, she spotted Jeb crouched next to, a woman who had to be, the Marshal. Liz took a moment to look at the woman who had been chasing — correction — had caught Jeb. She looked to be in her mid to late 50's, with short, curly blond hair. She had a sturdy look, but still carried a dignified beauty about her. Without thinking about it, Liz walked right up to Jeb and the Marshal and said, "Hi, Jeb." The Marshal spun around, looked surprised for a second, and then grabbed Liz's wrist and pulled her down besides them.
"Who the hell are you, and why are you trying to get yourself killed?" the Marshal demanded.
"Mary, this is Dr. Ellington, the friend of Caleb's I told you about," Jeb answered in an amused voice.
Liz smiled at the Marshal and said with an apologetic look, "Sorry. So what's going on?"
The Marshal looked at Liz for a few seconds as if assessing her worth. She then said, "Well a group of two men and a woman showed up at the prison, demanded that we post bail on the prisoners. When they were told that no bail was going to be set soon, they drew out some kind of hand weapons and starting blast away at anything that moved. I've got one dead deputy and three in the hospital. They were on their way out when they ran into me entering the prison. Luckily I was able to hit the lockdown button before they got to me. I called for reinforcements, but by the time they arrived, they had blasted their way through the inner doors. Whatever they got for firepower is way beyond what's available to us. I'm just worried now that they'll try to rush us and get a lot of people killed on both sides."
After Liz took all that in, she calmly remarked, "Oh, I don't think you'll have to worry about them much longer."
As if on cue the front doors of the prison burst open. One by one a collection of weapons started flying through the open doorway and landing in a single pile on the ground. After a minute a figure come walking through the door. Actually floating was a better word. It was Clark, or rather Superman, floating towards them, cape fluttering in the breeze behind him. In his hands he held, by the back of their shirts, the men who had attacked the prison. They were both still conscious, but were unmoving, stunned into submission.
He landed right in front of the Marshal and dropped the men at her feet. "Hello Marshal…" He bent over to look at her name tag and then said, "Marshal Harris. I secured all the weapons and prisoners inside. I ran out of things to tie them up with, so I brought these two out for you." He then looked like he forgot something and said, "Oops, I left one hanging, be right back." With that he disappeared at super speed back into the prison. A few seconds later he returned, carrying a woman who had a terrified look on her face. Without much ceremony, Superman dropped her at the Marshal's feet also.
"She a little disoriented," Clark said to the Marshal. "Must be the fast take-off." Liz almost laughed aloud at that comment. He looked at her for a moment with a mischievous twinkle passing in his eyes just long enough for Liz to see. 'Show off,' she thought. 'What a kid.' She mentally chuckled to herself. 'Great, I'm getting involved with a 225 year old little boy.'
The Marshal finally seemed to recover a bit and tentatively asked, "Superman?"
"Um… yes. Sorry for the abrupt entrance, but I wanted to take care of the situation first before it could escalate." Liz could see that he was in full Superman mode, standing as straight as possible, stern look on his face, and arms crossed in front of him. 'He really does look impressive with the suit and that stern look on his face,' Liz thought. 'No wonder no one guessed that he was really Clark for all those years. I bet Jeb doesn't even recognize him as Caleb.'
Thinking about Jeb, Liz turned to see what Jeb's reaction was at the moment. She saw him standing there with an incredulous look on his face and muttering repeatedly, "I'll be damned." She covered her mouth to hide her amusement at Jeb's reaction. Composing herself somewhat, she looked straight at Clark (with a slightly evil look in her eyes), and said, "Hello Superman."
Clark turned and looked at the expression on her face. Raising one eyebrow he replied, "Dr. Ellington, I presume. Nice to finally meet the person who wrote the book on my family's history. So, what brings you out to Montana?"
"Sightseeing," she answered nonchalantly. She could see Clark biting his lip to keep control of himself. 'That'll teach him to tease me in public.' "So I see that you decided to make yourself public finally. I suspected that you've been operating incognito for the last few years."
"Well, I didn't think my presence was needed in such a public manner until now. But you're right, I have been helping when I can without showing myself."
Liz thought to herself, 'He's going to owe me big time for this little performance.' She was about to make another comment, when the Marshal broke in with, "You're the flying man who rescued my deputies yesterday."
"I'm afraid so Marshal. After that incident I decided I had been anonymous for long enough. Plus I need to discuss some… things with you in private later about what's going on recently. I could use some help from people I can trust, with what's been happening here." He then turned to Jeb and said, " Oh, of course, and you too Jeb."
"You… you… know who I am?" Jeb stuttered.
"Your reputation precedes you. I was advised by a friend that I may need some backup in this investigation, and I would feel better if the Marshal had some backup of her own. I hear you're pretty handy with a shotgun." Clark gave him the patented 'Superman smile of support' smile.
"You know who I am," Jeb said again. Then shaking his head he said, "Yes, yes I am pretty handy with it. And I would be happy to back up Mary here, for whatever you need us to do." He was now beaming proudly, looking back and forth between the Marshal and Superman.
By this time the Deputies had handcuffed the attackers that Superman had deposited on the ground and were escorting them back into the prison. The Marshal looked at Superman skeptically and then asked, "Why exactly do you want us to help you out? It's not like you know us well enough for you to put that kind of trust in us. For that matter, we don't know you at all. I do appreciate the help you just gave, but I'm sorry, it's hard just to jump into anything just on your word alone. I'm sure that you're a very nice… hero type of guy and all, but your sudden appearance is a little odd. It does appear that you are you related to the original Superman, but how can I know that for sure. You could be someone completely different. Why should I just automatically trust you?"
Clark contemplated this for a moment and then replied, "As far as trusting you and Jeb, I was told by a very close friend of mine that you could be trusted implicitly. And you can trust me because… I take it that 'I'm Superman' isn't good enough?."
"No offense, but you did just come out of nowhere," the Marshal said to him, almost apologetically. "I know you helped out, but still, it's a lot to ask."
Clark nodded his head slightly, understanding her predicament. He looked at Liz, with an expression that seem to ask, 'Now what?'
"Superman, could I ask you something in private?" Liz asked.
"Of course Dr. Ellington. Would you excuse us Marshal… Jeb?" Clark then led Liz over to a private area where they could talk.
"Listen, Clark…" Liz started. Clark corrected her quickly by whispering quickly, "Superman!"
"Sorry, Superman. Listen, you have to decide just who you are exactly. Didn't you plan out what you're going to say to people when you showed up in the suit? Mary's right, it's not like everyone going to welcome you with open arms. Especially officials, like the Marshal. So what was your plan?"
"Truthfully, I hadn't completely worked that part out yet," he said with a grimace.
"You're kidding, right? Tell me you're kidding."
"Well… I was going to have a plan, then I got sidetrack with… well, us. And then the prison thing happened. I guess I got carried away."
"You guess you got carried away," she repeated back to him slowly. She raised her finger at him about to say something, then changed her mind and lowered her hand. After shaking her head for a moment she asked him, "So what is your plan? Who are you going to be?"
He seemed to contemplate it for a minute. "You know, I had this wild idea. I always had a problem with the false identities thing anyway. Maybe when I'm in the suit, I can just be me. You know, Superman, the original one. Just tell the world the truth. I can always go back to being Caleb when I need some privacy." After a beat, he added with a hesitant look on his face, "But I wouldn't do that if you're uncomfortable with that idea."
She melted a little at his last comment. She still couldn't believe that he put so much weight into how she felt and what she needed. With the adoration of literally the whole world, he could have anything, anybody he chose. And apparently he had chosen her. 'The most powerful man on the planet, and he needs my approval. That's so… so… sweet.'
Liz smiled shyly and said, "Superman, whatever you decide will be all right with me. But I do have a suggestion. Maybe you should start out slow, and only tell the people you need to, in order to gain their trust. Then you can see how it feels. We could start with Mary and Jeb."
Clark gave her a big grin and said, "You are the best. And brilliant too, that's a great idea. Let's go talk to them now." He turned and started to walk back to where the Marshal and Jeb were standing. Liz followed him with an amused expression on her face. 'He's like a kid with a new toy. I wonder what's got him so excited?' She stopped to think about that for a minute. Then it hit her. 'He misses being Superman. He misses the helping, the flying, and catching the bad guys. He's locked himself away too long, and now he's free. Free to be himself again.'
She realized something else. She was happy, because he was happy. She loved to see him like this, full of joy and excitement. She could feel deep down inside her the joy she received from seeing him happy. She knew why, too. It was because he had become someone very special to her. She realized now, that no matter how hard it might be for them, no matter what barriers they had to overcome, their feelings for each other could conquer those hurtles. It might take time, but she was starting to feel brave enough to try.
As she caught up to Clark, she could hear him giving directions to the Marshal. "If you can meet me there in 10 minutes, I think I can show you a good enough reason to trust me."
"Well, I do at least owe you that much," the Marshal replied. "OK, Jeb and I will be there in 10 minutes."
"Thank you Marshal, you won't regret it. If you don't mind, could you take Dr. Ellington with you. I would like her there too."
"Of course Superman, that won't be a problem."
"Good, see you there." He then leapt into the air and flew off in a blur.
The Marshal looked at Jeb and Liz and said, "Well, we better leave now, it'll take 10 minutes to get there from here." She led them over to her police hover, and got them all inside, Liz taking the back seat. After they took off, the Marshal placed it on auto, and turned around to talk to Liz.
"Excuse me, Dr. Ellington…"
"Liz. I don't want to sound suspicious, but exactly what were you doing at the prison? I thought you were with Caleb."
'Think quick, Ellington, think quick. — Got it.'
"Well you see Marshal, I was actually talking with Superman when he heard the trouble at the prison. You know, super hearing and all. Anyway, I wanted to see him in action, so he agreed to take me along. We left Caleb behind to… um… check on his horses. Got to make sure that they're all alright and fed properly. Though he seems to think most of the time they can take care of themselves. You know that I'm going to write a follow up book on his family. I mean Superman's family, not Caleb's of course. That's why I came to Montana originally — to do some research for my book. I was investigating those sightings of a flying man dressed in all black. So when Caleb rescued me, he agreed to help me with my investigation. I thought he was just humoring me to be nice, but he really believed me. So after my riding lessons we tried to find Superman, but got sidetracked by those guys searching the SUV. Then of course there were the goons at the house with the really big guns. I thought we were really dead then, but then we got out of that one, too. Well I was about to give up on the whole Superman idea, when he found us. He wanted to know about those guys with the guns. Then the whole prison thing kicked in and I got him to fly me there with him. I couldn't believe how fast he flew me there, and I didn't even get hurt from the force of the wind. I think it's his aura that does that. So to make a long story short, that's how I got here." She finished with a shaky smile on her face.
The Marshal stared at Liz with a look of astonishment. "That was the short version? How did you just do that, I don't think I saw you take a breath." She shook her head and said, "Never mind. OK, so you met up with Superman, and he took you there. Let me ask you this, since you're the expert. Is this guy really a descendant of the original Superman?"
"Oh, well… I think I can definitely say that he is related to Clark Kent. No doubt about it."
"All right. Well we're almost there, I'll be interested to see what he has to say to convince me."
Jeb then spoke up. "You know honey, I would trust her on this. I know Caleb trusts her, so I think we can too."
The Marshal turned slowly to Jeb, and with a wary expression said, "Honey?"
Jeb raised his eyebrows and replied, "Would you prefer 'snookums'?"
"Ha Ha. No, honey is bad enough"
"Sorry, no 'honey' then."
Mary face broke into a smile as she said, "Actually 'honey' will do just fine. I haven't been anyone's honey for a long time." They sat there just looking at each other, with what would be considered a goofy expression on each of their faces.
"Would you guys like me to cover my eyes for a minute?" Liz asked from the back seat with a mischievous grin.
Mary immediately tried to look dignified again, while Jeb just let out a chuckle. The Marshal then declared that they had arrived and landed the hover near an abandoned camp ground. Sitting at a picnic table near where they parked was Clark, still in his Superman suit, examining some papers spread before him on the table top.
He stood up to greet them as they got out of the hover. "Hello Marshal, thank you for coming. Well, I need just to give you this and of course the opinion of Dr. Ellington here." He handed the sheriff a print out of an old newspaper clipping. It had a picture of Superman just before he flew off to avert the collision of the asteroid with the earth. The picture showed Superman very clearly. "One of Jimmy's better shots, don't you think?" he asked.
The Marshal looked at the picture, then at Clark, and then back at the picture again. "Well it certainly looks like you. But it's not exactly conclusive. It doesn't prove that you're related to him."
Clark took a deep breath and then said, "Marshal, I'm not saying that I'm related to Clark Kent. What I'm trying to tell you is… that I am Clark Kent. And based on some information I just received, it looks like I'm going to need some help."
The Marshal's jaw dropped a couple of inches. She looked at the picture again, and then back up at Clark. The Marshal eventually was able to get her mouth closed again. Without taking her eyes off of Superman she asked, "Liz, is this really him? Is he telling the truth?"
Liz couldn't suppress her smile this time. "Absolutely, no doubt about it."
Mary's expression grew serious and she looked closely into his eyes, as if she was searching for the truth within him. "I may be crazy, but I believe you. But weren't you a little older the last time the world saw you?"
"Actually I was. I, um… got better." He shrugged his shoulders, apologizing for his vague answer. "It's really a long story, let's just say I healed from some old battle wounds and I promise to explain later, when this is all over. Right now, I need your help. I just picked up some information from a contact I have in the federal government. It seems that someone has been stealing very high tech weaponry out of supposedly secret vaults. Those weapons I confiscated today were some of the stolen weapons."
"Just how dangerous are these weapons?" Mary asked.
"Well you saw what they did to Jeb's house and to your prison. A few of those fired together could even put a pretty good dent in me."
"I thought that the government stopped all that weapons research, in favor of spending the money on the Mayflower Project," Jeb interjected.
"Well they mostly did, with a few notable exceptions," Clark answered. "But, unfortunately, there was no thought to destroying all of the prototypes and first run models. So now there's a lot of very nasty hardware out on the street in the hands of less than desirable people. People, I might add, whose identity records have been destroyed, so that they can't be traced. So what we're up against is an army of functional ghosts who are in possession of hand weapons that can level buildings. And to make it worse, I have no idea what their motives are."
"Phew, this is not good at all," the Marshal said. "I hate to ask a dumb question, but if you are Superman, then exactly what is it that we could do for you?"
"I've been advised by a friend that it would be a good idea to have someone watch my back. If I've learned anything in 200 hundred years, it's been to take good advice." Clark took a quick moment to slip Liz a tender look before looking back at the Marshal. "Would you two be willing to help?"
"I'm in!" shouted Jeb with a big smile. The Marshal gave him a stern look which dampened his enthusiasm somewhat. "It would seem that we volunteered," the Marshal said with an edge of sarcasm in her voice. "Do you have a plan yet?"
"I have a couple of ideas. The first of which is to get a look at the vault where those Mark 7 rifles were stored. I think that it's located somewhere in Virginia, but that's just a guess. I'd like to see how they got in. After that, I have some friends in D.C. who can start trying to trace how the records of those criminals disappeared."
Jeb then interjected with, "Sorry for putting a bit of a damper on your plan and all Superman, but just how to you expect to get a look at the vault when it's supposed to be this big secret?"
"Well… I thought I'd fly over to the White House and ask the President for permission," Clark replied with a grin. "I think maybe I can play the 'I'm Superman' card with him."
"Do you know President Lane?" Liz asked very curiously.
"Well, we haven't met, at least not since he was a kid, but I do know all about him. It just so happens that he's my great-great-great-great-great grandson."
Liz looked at him incredulously and said, "Charles Lane is one of your descendants." After a beat she added, "You have a descendant whose last name is Lane. That's too weird."
After another moment's thought she exclaimed, "And why didn't I know that? I mean, I *should* know that. I researched you. One of your descendants being the President is a big deal, and I didn't know it." She shook her head in disbelief. "That did it, I really am retiring now. I'll just help yo… Caleb raise horses out here. Unbelievable!"
Clark tried to look supportive without being too obvious. "You shouldn't berate yourself Elizabeth, I personally know that Charlie kept his heritage a secret. He didn't want it to become an issue during the campaign." Clark was so concerned with Liz's feelings that he didn't notice the strange look Jeb gave him when he said Liz's full first name.
"Charlie, huh? Well sounds like we's got an in," Jeb noted slyly to the group. "So when do we take off?"
"Well first I'm going to set things up with my contacts in D.C., then I'll fly us out there." He turned to Liz and asked, "So do you think you want to join us, Dr. Ellington?"
She gave him a grin and replied, "Wouldn't miss it for the world."
While they were talking, Jeb had gone back to the picnic table, and was looking at the picture of Superman again from 200 years ago. "It's strange; you've hardly changed," Jeb noted. "Except for that little bit of gray I see in your hair."
The Man of Steel chuckled a little at that comment. "Yes, well that's been pointed out to me already. I have lived for a long time, but I'm not immortal. I guess the centuries are starting to catch up with me."
"So when was this picture taken?" Jeb asked.
Superman looked at the picture again wistfully. "That was pretty early in my career. Just about 5 months after I started. Boy… I almost didn't make it back from that one."
"Actually it was 4 1/2 months after he first appeared to save the Shuttle. It was just after Christmas time," Liz added, wanting to feel like she at least had some facts straight.
"I guess that would mean you're coming close to an anniversary, Superman," the Marshal said.
"Hey, not just any anniversary, it's his 200th since his first appearance. There's a big ceremony planned on August 26 at the EPRAD center. They were trying to launch the final Mayflower crew on that day as part of the… um, memorial." She gave Clark a sheepish grin at the last comment.
"Well, I'll be, I guess I have to say congrats on today then Superman," Jeb told him as he went to shake Superman's hand.
"Today?" Liz asked.
"What's the matter Liz, did you lose track of time? Today is the 26th," Jeb told her. He then formed a sly grin and started to ask, "Hey wouldn't it be funny for…"
"WHAT! Today is the 26th. Holy mother of… I was supposed to give a speech today at…" Liz check her watch and screamed, "Oh no, in twenty seven minutes. Now what am I going to do? Everybody's going to be there. I was supposed to make a presentation to the President!" She grabbed Clark by his upper arms and said, "I can't believe it, how did I let the time get away from me?"
Clark opened his mouth about to say something, then seemed to think the better of it. He looked at her calmly and said, "You know, I *could* get there in 5 minutes. If you wanted me to, that is." Liz stared at him as if she had forgotten that he was Superman and could actually do that. She then snapped out of it. "Then what are we waiting for? Let's go!"
Mary stared at Liz with an astonished look on her face. Jeb just gave out a loud snicker and said, "Tell you what Superman, you take Miss Liz here to her party, and we'll go home and wait until you need us." He looked at Mary and in a sweet voice asked, "Won't we, honey?"
Without changing expression, the Marshal replied in slow, soft voice, "Yes, that sounds fine to me."
Superman then scooped Liz up into his arms. "I think this time we can take it a little slower. No cocoon necessary for this trip." He then lifted slowly into the air, gained some altitude, and shot off in the general direction of Metropolis.
Mary, still looking in the air, said to Jeb, "Did I just see that right? Did that woman just treat the Man of Steel like he was at her beck and call?"
Jeb, for his part, was trying very hard not to burst out laughing. "You know, I think that… never mind. Come on Mary, let's go home and get things ready. Never know when the Boy in Blue is going to be back needing us."
Still looking up, Mary answered in a detached voice, "Yes, that's probably a good idea." Then a scowl formed on her face. She looked over at Jeb with a slightly indignant glare. "Home?"
"Well that offer's still good, ain't it?"
"Remind me again why I offered to let you stay at my house?"
"You need someone to fix your garden? Engineers are handy to have around the house? You like me? All of the above?"
Mary contemplated his questions very skeptically. She then grabbed him by the shirt, pulled him close, and kissed him hard on the lips. She released him from the kiss and said in all seriousness, "Yeah well, let's go before I change my mind." She then turned and walked purposefully toward her hovercraft. Jeb watched her walk away with a dazed expression on his face. He then broke into a wide grin and said, "Yes ma'am" and started to run to catch up with her.
After they got into Mary's hovercraft, she hesitated starting the vehicle. She turned to look at Jeb with a very concerned expression. "Jacob, are you sure about this? This is serious stuff, and these guys mean business. This is my job, not yours. I… I don't want you to get hurt."
"Oh, hells bells, woman. I can take care of myself. If Superman thinks he needs a backup, then why shouldn't you? I'm not some geek who can't handle himself you know. And I don't want you hurt either."
Mary reached over and placed her hand on Jeb's. "You're a good man Jeb. I'm lucky to have you," she said to him very softly.
"Yeah, I think we're both lucky, though I probably got the better end of the deal in this. So quit your jawing, and let's get out of here."
Mary looked at him warily and replied with a "Yes, Sir." She then started the hovercraft and set the controls to take them to her house.
Even though they were going pretty fast, Clark assured Liz that this was a leisurely pace for him, and at these speeds his aura would keep her more than comfortable. They were just approaching the outskirts of Metropolis, which nowadays was the more populated portion of the city. The last war from a hundred years before had devastated the center of most major cities, either with acts of terrorism or biological warfare. Only now, almost a hundred years after the war, had the great cities completely recovered. However, the mass exodus of the last century had set the population distributions that were still in place. With the advent of cheap, high speed transportation, humanity was able to spread out more, rather than concentrate in the interior of big cities.
Liz looked up at Clark and saw that he had a very hard expression on his face, like something was troubling him. "Is something wrong Clark?"
"No, nothing. Just thinking."
Not really convinced by that half-hearted reply, Liz persisted. "You can't seriously think that I'm going to believe that. Come on Clark, what's bothering you?"
Clark snickered softly at her remark. "Well, if you really want to know, this whole 'Bicentennial' thing bothers me. I wish they wouldn't make such a big deal about what I did. There are so many others that did just as much, if not more, than me, and they don't get statues built for them."
He let out a wistful sigh, then said, "This is what bothers me the most about going public again. I never really liked all the… fuss people made."
Liz knew that she had to do something to put him at ease. It was amazing really, the way he felt. She felt he deserved all the praise he had received over the centuries. Not for what he could do, but for how he used his gifts. He could have forced the world to bow at his feet, or just soaked up all the glory and received riches beyond imagining. She didn't even want to go into the women who would probably throw themselves at him. 'Heck, even I had an occasional stray thought about Clark when I was doing my research, and I'm a pretty level-headed woman.'
'But that's not how Clark is put together. Which, of course, just makes me love him all the more. I need to reassure him a little.'
"Clark, there's something you need to realize. You deserve all of this. Not because you're the strongest, or the fastest, or look so beautiful in that suit," she gave him her best evil grin at that last comment. "It's because of what you gave, without wanting anything back in return. You didn't ask for any of this, I know. But people need to give it to you, because you're their hero. And Clark, you really are a great hero. I know you're not perfect, but you keep trying to help, even when sometimes it isn't appreciated. You have to realize that you gave them a symbol, someone to look up to, at a time when there were so few people to look up to. No matter what you think of yourself, when people look at you in that suit, they see the hero. I know it's not always fair to you to have to take that kind of responsibility, but it comes with the territory when you put on that suit."
Clark looked embarrassed by her words. "Truthfully, Elizabeth, I don't feel like I live up to the image people have built up of me. I don't always feel that… heroic."
"Clark, just for the record, you are. And you can take my word for it. I happen to be an expert in past and ancient cultures, you know. I have studied a lot of the great heroes and how they fit into a society's psyche. And I know you, Clark. You, admittedly, are not a perfect being, but you are a hero. Even as Caleb, without the suit, you're a hero to me." She looked lovingly into his eyes as she said this to him.
Clark rewarded her with a shy smile. "Thank you, Elizabeth."
"Good. Now stop being silly, and get me to my presentation. I have an appointment with the second most powerful man on the planet." She was grinning mischievously at him now.
"Oh yes, Charlie. I sometimes have trouble picturing him as President, since the last time I saw him he was just 4 years old."
"When and how did you see him?" Liz asked.
"I make it a point to meet each of my grandchildren at least once, in one guise or another. I was Charlie's swimming coach for 6 weeks one summer."
"Oh yeah?" Liz's curiosity was now peaked. "Who were you then?"
"I was Caleb. It's when I first grew my hair long and let my beard grow out. If I remember right he was a lousy swimmer, something about not wanting to get water in his eyes. I solved his problem by giving him a full scuba mask. Didn't have a problem after that," he said with some satisfaction.
"The hero to the rescue again." Liz looked down, and saw that they must be over Metropolis by now. "How long until we get there?"
"In a few seconds. I just need to find a place to land. You know flying was a lot easier before hovercrafts. It takes me twice as long to land these days."
Liz could see the launch towers of the EPRAD center getting bigger as they approached. Clark stopped to scan the area for a moment. "Elizabeth, we're going down fast so no one can see us, so hang on." She gripped his neck tighter and buried her head against his chest. Suddenly the world seemed to drop from underneath her, and just as quickly they were still again. She tentatively pulled her face from his chest and saw that they were standing behind one of the hangers at EPRAD.
"You know, a little count down would be nice next time. You don't want me messing up that suit of yours," she said in mock indignation.
"Sorry," he replied sheepishly as he placed her back on her own two feet. "So where's the presentation? You've got 17 minutes to get there. I'll just get into some 'civvies' and watch you from the crowd."
She peered around the corner of the building to confirm where the presentation was taking place. "They've set up a grandstand at Pad 39, where the Colonist Transport took off that day. Actually where it got picked up by you." She giggled a little at his obvious embarrassment at the reminder of his debut. "I'm sorry Cl… um Superman, I didn't mean to laugh." She touched him tenderly on the cheek, which elicited a small smile from him.
"OK, wish me luck, I've got to go." She gave him a quick kiss on the lips, and was about to start her way to the grandstand when a booming voice from behind them said, "Hey! What are you doing over here?"
They both turned to see a rather rotund gentleman, who was holding an electronic clipboard, looking at the two of them in annoyance. "You're supposed to be setting up for the reenactment in…" He looked at his clipboard to check the time. "…6 minutes. Not sneaking behind the building to neck with your girlfriend. And who designed that costume you're wearing? I thought we wanted something authentic." He scowled at Clark and started to tap his right foot.
Clark looked down at himself self-consciously and then replied indignantly, "My mom designed this suit!"
"His mom. Great. That agency was supposed to send me the best, and this is what I get." He then looked Clark over, apparently appraising his worth for whatever Clark was supposed to be doing for him. "You think they could have sent someone… bigger. No offense, you are in good shape young man, but aren't you a little short to be playing Superman. And I was expecting someone a little taller, more… muscular. You know, this *is* supposed to be realistic."
Clark was stunned. He didn't even know what to say to this man. He looked over at Liz for help and saw that she was doubled over in laughter. Every time she tried to say something, she would erupt into another fit of laughter. Clark shook his head, and then looked at the man, offended. "You know, you're right. I have *no* idea what was going through my head when I thought I could play Superman. You better find someone else." With that he disappeared at super speed, collecting Liz along the way.
The man just stood there, frozen in place. After a moment the clipboard dropped from his hand and crashed to the ground. Just then a man, who was obviously a trained body builder and dressed in a version of Superman's costume, came walking around the corner. "There you are. You must be Chip. They said you would tell me where I have to go."
Chip just stood there, rooted in his place. The actor looked at him, concerned. He waved his palm in front of Chip's glassy eyes. "Are you all right buddy?"
Without moving or changing his expression Chip said softly, "He said he quit… that he couldn't play Superman." He raised his eyebrows and started to nod his head. "Yep, that's what he said. Said he couldn't be Superman. Then whoosh." He looked at the actor as if he just realized he was there. "Whoosh!" he said again for emphasis.
Chip picked up his broken clipboard from the ground and handed it to the befuddled actor with a dazed look on his face. "Here this is for you." He then looked the actor up and down for a few seconds and asked, "Aren't you a little tall to play Superman? Never mind. I'm going for drink." Without saying another word, he turned around and headed for the closest pilot's lounge. The actor looked at the clipboard, and then at the receding form of Chip. Scowling in thought, he came up with the marginally intelligent, but succinct response of, "Huh?"
After a moment of the world blurring around her, Liz found herself standing behind the podium area next to Clark. She shook her head clear and then said, "You really have to stop doing that."
"Yeah, well thanks for all that support back there." Looking at himself, he said to no one in particular, "And just what is wrong with my suit?"
"Oh come on Clark, lighten up. It was pretty funny if you think about." Liz could feel another attack of laughter threatening to bubble to the surface again.
"Ha Ha. I'm going. Say hi to Charlie for me." As he turned to go Liz could hear him mumbling something about not being tall enough.
Still snickering to herself, she started to make her way to the front of the podium when two very large, and very official looking men in dark suits and sunglasses stopped her. "Excuse me ma'am, you're not supposed to be back here."
"Um, actually I am. I'm Dr. Ellington. I have a presentation to make in a couple of minutes. I'm running a little late." She put on her best 'innocent sweet smile'.
The other agent pulled out a small device, held it out to her and told her, "Please put your right thumb in the center of the black area, and say your full name into the microphone." Amazingly, the agent said this whole sentence with absolutely no inflection in his voice.
'Boy, I bet he's fun at parties,' Liz thought to herself. She placed her thumb on the device and said into it, "Elizabeth Joy Ellington." The agent then looked at a small screen on the device. Satisfied with what he saw, he spoke some instructions into a lapel mike. Then looking back at Liz he said, "Agent Tarkington will escort you to your place on the grandstand. Please stay right next to him at all times."
"Um, sure, no problem. Well, it was a thrill meeting you," she said sarcastically. She turned to the Agent Tarkington and said, "Shall we?"
The agent led her up the stairs to the grandstand platform and showed her to her seat. Another official-looking person handed her some notes on what she was expected to say, and yet a third person handed her a plaque that she was supposed to present to the President. After reviewing her notes, she settled in to listen to the President give his opening speech. As she watched the President, she noted absentmindedly how he had Clark's eyes and chin.
The President was wrapping up his speech, when a loud voice rose from the crowd of spectators. "Hey Prez, why don't you take a look at this?" The speaker rose out of his chair, and pulled a large hand-held weapon out of his coat. He pointed it at the President and fired, releasing a bolt of white energy. To their credit, the Secret Service agents had tackled the President to the ground before the podium exploded into a million pieces.
There was pandemonium everywhere. People on the grandstand were trying to get off as fast as possible looking for cover. The crowd below had started to scatter away from the gunman, with people knocking each other down in their haste to get away. Liz sat in her chair, frozen in place, watching the events unfold before her.
The Secret Service agents not shielding the President started to draw their weapons to return the fire of the gunman. Before they could fully draw their weapons, the lone gunman scattered several shots in the direction of the grandstand, causing the agents to dive for cover. Just as he aimed his weapon for another shot at the President, a blurred form streaked past him, removing the weapon from his hand. The blur reappeared in front of the gunman in the form of a very perturbed looking Superman.
Superman crushed the weapon in his hand, then blurred back to super speed and whirled around the gunman several times. When he stopped, Superman had a collection of various devices and weapons piled on the ground behind him. Liz watched as he grabbed the gunman by his shirt and hoisted him into the air. "Mind telling me why you're taking pot shots at the President?" Superman said in a deep and menacing voice.
"Truthfully it was to see if you would show up. I think you should look over to your right Mr. Superhero." Clark looked over to his right to see another gunman with a 9- year-old girl in his grasp. This gunman had his weapon placed against the temple of the little girl.
"So I suggest you…" Before the gunman could finish his sentence, Clark flicked him in the side of the head with his index finger, knocking him unconscious.
The gunman holding the girl snorted. "Now that wasn't very nice Superman. It was smart, but not very nice. So you probably want to know what I want, don't you? Well it's simple really. I just want you to stand there and don't move." As he said this, 6 other men and women appeared from the crowd and formed a circle around the Man of Steel. They all drew weapons out of their coats, similar to the one held by the little girl's captor.
"My friends here are going to see exactly how much damage they can do by firing their weapons simultaneously. It's a little science experiment our boss devised. If you move, I'll pull this trigger and the little girl's head disappears. Is that simple enough for you?"
Liz watched Clark's expression grow very hard. He looked right at the gunman without answering or moving, but she could see his anger building slowly. As she looked at him, she realized why he wasn't moving. It wasn't because he couldn't do anything, but because he was calculating the exact move he would need to rescue that little girl. The gunman couldn't know this since he must have based his expectation of Superman's reaction on lore, and even her book. What the gunman didn't realize was that he was dealing with a hero who had spent the last 200 years perfecting and honing the use of his awesome powers. She could attest to that by the amount of control he exerted while subduing those men at the SUV and in his home.
She saw the gunman begin to look a little uneasy under Superman's angry stare. "Fine by me, if you want to give the silent treatment, won't matter in a moment." He then looked at his fellow gunmen and commanded, "Ready, aim, f…" The gunman didn't get out his last word as Clark disappeared in a blur. So fast was his take off, that the vacuum created in his wake knocked a couple of the other gunmen off their feet. When Clark stopped, he had taken the place of the girl's captor. The captor had been knocked back a few feet and lay unconscious on the Tarmac. In the space of a second, he wrapped the little girl in his cape, and flew her to away. One and one-half seconds later he appeared in a blur again, zooming around all the gunmen/women, removing all of their electronic devices and weapons. On his final circuit he wrapped up each gunman securely with some kind of metal wiring.
After finishing with all the gunmen, Clark stopped, and then rose a few feet off the ground. He did a slow 360- degree turn, looking intently in all directions. He held his arms by his side, both fists still clenched in fury.
That day, several news agencies recorded the quick battle at EPRAD, which reintroduced Superman to the world. Of all the images that would be remembered on this day, this picture of him searching the area — hands tightly balled in anger, the stern, determined expression on his face, his cape fluttering in the breeze behind him, and his piercing dark eyes — would be remembered and shown often around the world. He had, in his first public battle in decades, given notice to the criminal element. He was back, and if they tried to hurt innocent people, they would have to answer to him. He wasn't that young boy fresh off the farm anymore, unsure of his powers and place in the world. He was now the determined and experienced superhero, long practiced at dealing with the criminal element.
As Liz watched Clark searching the area for any further gunmen, her initial doubts started to resurface. Here was the legend again, the hero. It hit her what it meant to have feelings for this man, the responsibility she would shoulder. Looking at this side of Clark, she feared that she was not up to the task of being the partner to both Clark and the Man of Steel. She knew that he would rebuke her for saying such a thing, but in reality it was true. Even if Clark thought of himself primarily as Clark, he was also Superman. It was an integral part of him. The personality he had created in the suit as a disguise was now fundamental to his being. She recalled his look of joy when they had worked out a way for him to be Superman again. But right at this moment, she really didn't know if she had what it took to be the partner he needed.
She wondered briefly if Lois ever had any of these doubts. A few days ago she would have scoffed at the idea. Lois was as much of a legend as Clark. The indomitable woman who made her way to the top, never having doubts or insecurities, standing beside the Man of Steel without a second thought. But now, after knowing Clark these past few days, she could guess that Lois was not a legend, just a woman, with probably the same doubts and insecurities that many women had. How did she cope with Clark's dual nature, and the responsibility that came with that?
She was broken out of her introspection when she saw Clark zoom over to the roof of a nearby building. She could just make him out picking up another person, and going to the edge of the roof. 'What is he doing up there?' Then she watched as Clark shoved the person off the roof. 'What the…?' She couldn't believe it. How could Clark do such a thing?
A few seconds before the person hit the ground, Clark flew down and grabbed the person again. He brought the person back up to the roof. After another half a minute, she watched Clark rise into air carrying the person by the scruff of the neck and head back in the direction of the grandstand. He reached the grandstand and deposited the man he carrying at the feet of the federal agents there.
"Here, this one needs to be taken into custody also. He had this on him." Clark handed the agent standing closest to him a weapon just like the one that was being used by the gunmen in the crowd. "It seems they were all hired by a mysterious entity whom they met only through the Net and Comm Units. It appears that I was their real target."
Clark was about to turn to leave, when he seemed to think of something else to say. He walked directly to the prisoner and looked him straight in the eye, his face not more than two inches from the other's nose. Liz could see the honest fury in his face, and she could almost swear that his eyes were glowing red. "Just so you know, and you can tell any of your 'friends' this too. If you want to pick the one thing in the universe that angers me the most, you couldn't have done better than what you people did here today. Threatening innocent bystanders to get to me is a big… big mistake. One that I will not tolerate, nor bow to. That's not a threat, just a promise."
Clark then turned and walked away. Liz could see Clark's expression relaxing as he moved toward President Lane. 'Wow, definitely not the Kansas farmboy anymore.'
The federal agents were unsure what to do as Superman approached the President. He obviously was on their side, but they were unsure as to how to treat him. The President, for his part, was closely studying Clark's face as he approached.
Clark reached the President, held out his right hand for a handshake, and said in the manner of a father to a son, "Hello, Charlie."
President Lane looked at Superman, uncertain for several seconds, then with a hesitant voice asked, "Grandpa Clark?"
"Yes it's me, Charlie."
"But you're dead," the president whispered in awe. After staring blankly at Superman for a few moments, he finally was able to collect himself. "I mean, we thought you were dead. How is it that you're here?" Then after a beat, "And weren't you older when you were… um… killed?"
Clark drew in a deep breath and shook his head. "I'm getting that comment a lot these days. It's a long story, but right now there are more important things we need to talk about. Like where the people, who are out to get me, are getting those sophisticated weapons."
The President, now focused again, replied, "You're right, we do." He looked over his shoulder and addressed one of the secret service agents. "Jake, I'll be with Superman for the next few minutes. Secure this area, and make sure all the civilians are evacuated from the base. Sweep everywhere for any hidden devices, I don't want the Colonists to run into any surprises."
"Yes sir," the agent replied.
Clark looked a little amused at the President. "You're certainly taking this in stride. I actually thought that you would take a little bit more convincing than 'Hi, I'm Superman'."
"Well, to tell you the truth, that little 'demonstration' of yours did help. And I have done quite a bit of research into our family. Just because I don't flaunt my heritage, doesn't mean I'm not interested," he said with a sly grin. "So unless you're a full blooded Kryptonian who just came to Earth and who happens to be an exact double for my 8 times great grandfather, you have to be Clark Kent."
At that moment one of the Secret Service agents approached them, and with a hesitant voice asked, "Mr. President, shouldn't a couple of my men go with you?"
"Don't worry, I think I'll be safe with Superman." Charles turned to Clark and said, "Shall we?"
Clark chuckled a little. "Definitely take after your grandmother's side of the family."
"Grandmother's? Oh, you mean Grandma Lois? Is she still alive too?"
Liz saw a dark cloud come over Clark's features. She didn't even want to guess at the thoughts that were crossing his mind at that moment. "No," he replied gloomily, "she passed away some time ago."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to bring up anything painful. That was thoughtless of me."
"Don't worry about it, it was a long time ago. We better go," Clark said in a clipped tone. He then turned and walked over to Liz. "Would you mind accompanying us Dr. Ellington?" Clark's face was unreadable, a mask of the stern superhero.
"Sure Superman, whatever you need," she said with a detached voice. Clark's display of his abilities, along with his reaction to Charlie's comment about Lois, had caused her initial doubts about her and Clark to resurface. Somehow, at the moment, she didn't feel quite adequate for him.
Seemingly unaware of her mood, Clark turned back to the President. "Charlie, if you don't mind, Dr. Ellington is coming with us. She's been involved in what's been going on. I'd like her to share her perspective on things."
"Of course Grandpa Clark."
"Alright then," Clark said, "I need you both on each side of me." Liz walked up to Clark's left side, while Charlie got on his right. Clark put his arm around each of their waists and slowly lifted into the air. After rising a few feet into the air, he turned to Charlie and said, "By the way Charlie, just Clark, or even Superman will do. It feels kind of strange for the President to call me Grandpa."
"Well, it will feel strange calling you Clark, but if that's what you want…"
"Thanks Charlie. OK you two, hang on." With that, Clark sped up, heading to the outskirts of the launch center. Finding a deserted spot, he dropped down and landed, depositing his passengers on the ground next to him.
"You know, I have about a million questions to ask you. How you survived, why did stay away for so long, what's brought you back." Then after a moment's contemplation he started to ask, "And just where do you put your boots when you change out of…"
"Charlie!" Clark said raising his hand to stop the tirade of the President's questions. "Definitely takes after Lois," Clark muttered. Then louder, "Charlie, when we have the time, I'll be happy to answer all your questions. But right now we need to concentrate on what's been going on with this conspiracy."
This got the President's attention very quickly. "What makes you think this is a conspiracy?"
Clark then reviewed all of the events that had unfolded in the past few days, including the information that Shir¡ had given him. Liz jumped in from time to time to supply what had happened to her and Caleb / Clark. When they had finished, Charlie stood there with his arms crossed as he contemplated the patch of grass in front of him with a grim look.
"This is bad Gra… Clark. Very bad. Someone very high up would have to be involved to be able to erase those records. Only very few people know about the existence of that weapons vault. What's even more interesting is the timing of the thefts."
"Why?" asked Clark.
"Because I had scheduled all those weapons to be destroyed. The thefts took place two days before the scheduled time for the destruction. Before, I chalked it up to coincidence, but now…"
"I see what you mean. You know, I might be able to help shed a little more light on this mystery if I could get a look at that vault. Has the damage been cleaned up yet?"
"No, I still have investigators there trying to piece together what happened. I'll clear it so you can show up at any time and be let in. Just pick a convenient code word so they'll know who you are."
"All right, I guess um…" Clark looked Liz in the eyes for a moment then said "'Jade' will do."
"The vault is on the 39th floor of the Star Labs facility in Richmond, Virginia. By the time you get there, they'll be ready for you."
"Good. Any particular way you want me to contact you if I find anything?" Clark asked.
"Here…" The President pulled out his wallet and extracted a business card from it. He handed it to Clark. "There's a Comm code which will get you connected directly to me at any time, day or night, wherever I am. Let me know as soon as you find out anything."
"Sure, Charlie." Clark looked at him for a moment reflectively and then said, "You know, you've really come a long way from that little boy who was afraid to get his face wet. I'm very proud of you Charlie, of whom you've become." He then added with a mischievous grin, "I even voted for you."
"Thanks, that means a lot coming from you. I always admired… Wait a minute. How did you know that I was afraid of the water?"
Liz could see Clark become a little embarrassed as he went on to explain to Charlie about the swimming lessons. Charlie, for his part, seemed flabbergasted at the idea. The whole scene helped to lighten her mood a little. Clark then turned to her and said, "E… Dr. Ellington, I'm going to take the President back, and then come back to you to take you back to… um…"
"My hotel room," she finished for him.
She could see his relief at her assistance. "Yes, hotel room. Ready, Charlie?"
With a nod from the President, Clark picked him up as before and disappeared into the sky. Looking into the sky in the direction of their flight, Liz began to think again about what she was going to do about Clark and her feelings for him. It seemed that every day, every moment, she discovered a new side of him that she had to integrate into the whole person. First he was Caleb. Then she discovered him to be Clark Kent, the 227 year old widower. Now she saw him as the Man of Steel. Seeing him today in action had caused seeds of doubts about being the right person for Clark… Superman, to reemerge. Could she really be loved by Clark, be a true partner to him?
She recalled the expression on Clark's face when the President mentioned Lois. How could she compete with Lois, who was a legend in her own right. Lois received more literary awards than any other person in the history of the news industry, including two Pulitzers. Not to mention the number of criminals and corrupt people she had helped put in prison through her exposes. How could she measure up to all of that? Sure, Clark seemed to be opening his heart again, but once he really got to know her, would she be enough for him?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Clark, as he dropped down right next to her. "So,… ready to go?"
"Go where?" she asked without much enthusiasm.
"I um… thought we'd go back to the Fortress for a while. It seems safer than the house at the moment." Then after a beat he asked, "Is something wrong?"
"No, nothing. Just wondering if you needed me anymore that's all. I mean you met the President and got him up to speed. So now you'll be going soon to investigate…" She started pacing back and forth, punctuating her speech by waving her arms.. "…whatever you're going to investigate. So what do you need me for? I mean the guys I thought were behind this turn out to be a bunch of 'clowns', so what do I know? And how much help was I back at your house? I admit, I did get that guy to sit down in the right place, but that was just luck. Of course, now I know you didn't need my help at all, since you're… you know. And apparently they've been after you the whole time, so what the heck was I doing looking for you in the middle of nowhere, since I was warning you about the wrong guys anyway. Not that I'm not going to kill Risse the next time I see him, because I still owe him for sending those goons to try to kidnap me. But now what good am I? I don't know Tae Kwon Do and apparently I'm not the greatest investigator in the world. So I guess you could just drop me at home… I mean in Los Angeles and then I'll be out of your hair. Maybe someday we can sit down and correct all those mistakes I made in my book, then I can find my next career with a clear conscience. So, no, nothing's really wrong, why do you ask?" Liz finished her outburst out of breath staring at Clark with her arms crossed and a wide eyed, questioning look.
Clark, for his part, stood there, speechless. After several attempts to respond to Liz, he finally got out, "Maybe we could just go to my place and talk. You think that would be OK?" Clark's expression was a cross between confusion and sheer panic.
"Clark, I don't know. I just don't think that I have much to offer you right now." Liz looked away shyly, unable to look him in the eye.
"Elizabeth, come with me and let's talk. Please." He came up behind her and gently placed a hand on her arm.
Liz turned slowly back to Clark, tears forming in her eyes. "Why?"
"Because, I need to talk to you about what you're feeling. And because I need you." He looked at her with pleading eyes.
"Damn. It's not fair using those puppy dog eyes on me. It's just not fair." Then with a resigned voice said, "OK, let's go."
Clark scooped her up into his arms and took off back towards Montana. Liz was silent the whole trip back, until they finally arrived at the entrance to the Fortress. Clark set Liz gently down in front of the entrance and spoke the command to open the door. As it opened, he reached over and took Liz's hand in his. She stared down at their intertwined hands. "Clark, I…I…"
"Shhh. Not yet, let's get inside and let me get out of this suit. Then we can talk. OK?"
She sniffed a couple of times and said quietly, "OK."
They entered the Fortress and walked into the main room. Clark went into the side room and returned a couple of seconds later dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.
Liz had to smile a little at the speed of his change. "It's really not fair that you can change so fast. It takes me an hours to get ready properly in the morning."
"Hey, all men are fast getting ready. I'm just a little faster," he shot back at her with his mischievous grin. Then more seriously he said, "Let's sit down so we can talk". After sitting together on the couch, he gently asked, "Why do you feel you have nothing to offer me, Elizabeth? Especially after what has happened between us in the last couple of days."
Liz stared down at the floor, wringing her hands nervously. Then softly, her tone colored with a distant sadness, she said, "I just don't know if I'm up to being a partner for Superman. Seeing you today, it just made me think. About you, and what it means to be with you, and what you need. I don't know if I can compare to… to…"
"Lois," he finished for her.
"Yes, exactly. How can I possibly provide you with the things she did. …An award winning investigator, who regularly put criminals in jail. I mean she taught Superman… I mean you, Tae Kwon Do. She saved your life more that once. People wrote books about her life. People like me. I can't live up to that. Shir¡ is properly a better match for you than me. I…"
She was stopped in her speech by Clark gently placing a finger on her lips and softly saying, "Shhhh. I don't want you to live up to anybody. I just want you to be Elizabeth. True, part of who I am today is because of my past relationship with Lois. But love isn't about finding the most capable person who can be all things. It's about two people who fit together and fill the empty spaces in each other. Who complete each other. I don't want the perfect person, just the person who is perfect for me. And I think I found her. After all this time of locking away my heart, I looked into those green eyes of yours, and found someone who convinced me to open my heart again."
His hand touched her chin and he raised her head so that he was looking directly into her eyes. "Do you still like me?" he asked timidly.
She smiled tearfully at him. "Well, actually I feel a little bit more than that. Are you sure you want to be stuck with someone like me?"
His answer was to lower his head and touch his lips to hers. Any lingering doubts about Clark's feelings towards her were shattered by the love she felt in his kiss. Without breaking the kiss, she reached up and wrapped her hands around his neck. She felt his arms encircle her and pull her closer to him. Finally releasing the kiss, she looked into his dark eyes, seeing further proof of his feelings there. She then noticed that she felt a little funny, and somehow the room looked a little different. 'Now why does the room suddenly look different?' she thought to herself. She looked down and noted that they were both floating a couple of feet off the couch.
"Um Clark… Did you notice that we are not quite on the couch anymore?"
"Huh?" he asked in a distracted voice. She noticed that the grin on his face bordered on goofy once again.
"Look down," she commanded.
"Oh, look at that. Sorry. Well that hasn't happened in a long time. Want to go back down?"
"Actually, this is kind of nice." She had to guess that her grin matched his at the moment.
"So, are you alright now? Are we alright now?"
"I think so Clark. I'm sorry, I just let my insecurities run away from me."
"And you do realize that I'm falling *in* love with you, don't you?"
She shook her head slowly, as if not quite believing his statement. "I think I know. Actually I think I already realized that before. It's just that sometimes when I think about it, the fact that we met and feel this way seems like… like…"
"Magic," he finished softly.
Smiling at her he then said, "I think we better land, there's still that little matter of someone out there who's gunning for me."
"Oh Clark, you're right. You better get over to Star Labs and check out that vault. I think I should call Jeb and Mary and let them know what's going on."
"Good idea." He floated them back down to the couch and then stood up. "I'll be right…" He zoomed away in a blur and returned a second later as Superman. "…back."
She gave him a dirty look as she muttered, "Show off."
He gave her a mock indignant look in response. "I heard that. I'll have you know that Superman never shows off. It's not dignified for a superhero to show off."
"Anyway, I forgot to ask if you're hun…"
"Grwllll". Liz stomach gave out a loud growling noise.
"…gry," he finished. "Never mind, I'll take that as a yes. What do you want me to bring you on the way back?"
"Oh, how embarrassing. Well, I am starving now that you mentioned it. Do you like Chinese? I would kill for some good Chinese food right now."
"It just so happens that I know of a place," he said with a grin. He commanded the computer to open the ceiling hatch again. "I'll be back as quick as I can." He then grabbed her, lifted her off the ground, and gave her a quick passionate kiss. He set her back down and with a loving smile still on his face, disappeared in a blur.
'Wow. It's going to take a while to get used to that. I guess I should call Jeb and Mary.' She looked around for the Comm unit. Finding it, she realized that she didn't know the code to call Jeb or Mary. 'Now how the heck am I going to call them? Oh yeah.'
"Computer," she said out loud.
After a moment a mechanical voice answered. "Identify."
"Um, I'm Liz."
"Specify what?" she asked in a frustrated voice.
"Specify identification? What the… Oh. I'm Elizabeth Ellington."
"Geez Clark, how old is this system? Computer get me the Comm code for Jeb."
"Working. Verify Jeb is Jacob Earl Buchanan III."
"Yes, yes, just give me the damn code," Liz said raising her voice impatiently.
"Working. Do you desire autodial?"
"Yes!" Liz was practically screaming at the computer by now. 'First chance I get I'm making Clark update that operating system. Sounds like something out of a bad twentieth century television show.'
The Comm unit beeped, indicating that it was ringing Jeb. After three rings Jeb got on the line. "Yep. This is Jeb."
"Hi Jeb, it's Liz. Just wanted to let you know that we're OK"
"Liz, honey. Where the hell are you? We caught wind of that little 'altercation' at the launch center. Some of the news channels carried part of the action. What were you doing just sitting there during all that ruckus?"
"Just watching Superman take care of things. Why? What should I have done, helped him?" Liz's voice had an unintentional edge of sarcasm.
"No, but taking cover might have been a good idea. Never mind, you're a big girl. Just be careful. Where's Superman now?"
"Oh, he had to go and investigate something."
"So where are you?" Jeb asked.
"Superman didn't think it was safe to go back to the house, so he took me somewhere hidden. I'll be safe for now, so don't worry."
"OK, take care of yourself." There was a pause as if Jeb was considering something else, then he said, "I guess that Caleb is there with you, right?"
"Oh, yeah, sure. But he's… he's… in the shower right now."
Liz scowled a little at his tone of his comment. It was almost conspiratory. "Well, we'll get back to you later, OK Jeb?"
"Sure Miss Liz. We'll be either at Mary's place or at her office. Talk to you later. Oh, and by the way, tell Caleb I said for him to be careful."
"Alright, I will," she replied suspiciously. "Bye, Jeb."
The line was then disconnected. 'Now that was a little strange,' she thought. As she sat down on the couch to think about what to do next, the computer came back on.
"What?" she answered in a startled voice.
"You have been identified as Elizabeth Ellington and have been given complete access to all systems by Clark Kent. Verify."
"Yes I *verify*. And call me Liz."
"Designation change registered. Liz, specify relationship to Clark Kent."
"Huh? Why the heck are you asking me that? Is this a joke?"
"Negative. There is a message stored in this system that is potentially for you. But this system needs to verify relationship with Clark Kent."
She snorted. "Me, too. I guess we're falling in love. Actually I know I'm falling in love with him."
"Is relationship mutual?"
"That's what he told me. I guess I just have to get rid of these nagging doubts. It's really not like me you know, I've always been pretty confident about things. And admittedly I was the one who sort of chased after him in the beginning. OK, not sort of. That shirt business was a little blatant. And that first kiss was… you know, *Wow*. I know that he wants me to love him as Clark, but the superhero thing can be a little overwhelming. Not that I haven't seen that he has flaws, so it makes him a little more of a real guy. It's still a little scary, but I'm OK with it now. And when it comes right down to it, I have started to fall in love him, whether he's Caleb, Clark, or Superman, he's still the same person. And why am I spilling my guts to an antique computer?"
"Processing. Verified. This message has been marked for you. Receive printout."
Liz took the printout from the printer on the table and looked at it. It was a letter, and amazingly it was addressed to her, but it was dated 120 years ago. Curious, she began to read the letter.
July 29, 2073
Don't worry, the computer supplied your name above, so there's no weird psychic or time traveling thing going on here. I know that I don't have much time left, so I'm writing this letter for you and leaving it in the computer. The computer will know when to give it to the right person. That is, if I programmed this damn thing right. Machines and I never got along very well, that was Clark's department.
Sorry, I got off track. OK, the purpose for this letter. Well let me introduce myself first. I'm Lois Lane Kent, Clark's first wife. I have noticed in the last few years that Clark has stopped aging as much as me. He doesn't look like a spring chicken anymore, but it's obvious now that he's going to outlive me. I've been trying to get it through his thick skull (he's very stubborn, if you haven't noticed already) that he can find someone else to love after I'm gone. And that it will be all right with me. I don't want him to be alone. Of course he takes things to the extremes sometimes (another character flaw I've been working on for the last 77 years), so he has it in his head that he could never love anybody after me. Like he would be cheating on me. What a lunkhead! An adorable lunkhead, but a lunkhead all the same.
Back the point of this letter. I want you to be yourself with Clark. Sure, he's pretty amazing, and the flying thing is great, but at heart, he's really just a country boy who made it in the big city. The amazing stuff he can do is just that — stuff he can do. Inside he's this sweet, vulnerable boy who tries so hard (too hard sometimes) to please everyone, and be everything to everyone. Don't let him do that. Make him understand that even he can't do everything. And treat him like a man (a beautiful one, I'll give you that, but just a man). What he needs is your love and support, and to ground him when he gets too lost in his 'save the whole' mode.
And finally, don't worry about measuring up to anything. Heck, you wouldn't believe how inadequate I felt in the beginning. I mean how could a mere human be a partner for a superhero? But I got over it quickly of course <grin>. Not because I was a great person with fantastic abilities, but because I realized what was important in my relationship with Clark was that I love him, and to be his other half. Just as he is for me. He once told me that he couldn't be Superman without my love and support. I first thought he was just being nice, but later I realized that he was right. Together we were stronger than either one of us alone.
So that's all. Just love him, and everything else will fall into place. And thank you for taking care of him. I'm not afraid of dying, I've had a long and full life. But I hate the thought of leaving Clark alone. I'm glad he found you.
And just so you know, you have my blessings.
Tears were flowing freely from Liz's eyes as she finished the letter. She thanked Lois silently for the foresight of leaving her this message. She looked at the date again, and realized that a few days after Lois wrote this letter, she passed away. Lois's letter had helped to wipe away the last of the doubts she had about Clark and herself. What a wonderful gift she had given Liz.
She folded the letter carefully and put it in the pocket of her trousers. She then went in search of some tissues so she could clean the tear stains on her face. She didn't want to greet Clark like this when he got back. She knew that Lois had probably not wanted Clark to know about the letter, so Liz didn't want to invite any questions from him. After finding some tissues in the kitchenette, she cleaned her face, and went back to the couch to sit down.
She sat there thinking about her and Clark, and the possibilities for their lives together. A smile slowly began to spread across her face. Things were definitely beginning to look up. Now that she thought about it, she should be scolding herself for letting her doubts get to her.
She heard a sliding noise come from the ceiling. A whoosh and a blur of motion announced the entrance of her favorite superhero. As the blur coalesced into the form of Clark in the suit, she saw him standing there, holding three bamboo containers. From them came the wonderful smell of Chinese food.
"My hero," she squealed, in her best imitation of a teenage groupie. She got more serious as she looked up at his and face and saw the concerned look he wore. "Is everything all right, Clark?"
"I… don't know," he answered in a distracted voice. He held up the food containers and said, "Here, I got dinner. We should eat before it gets cold." Not saying anything else, he turned and walked to the small kitchen table in the corner of the room. He placed the containers on the table and started to set the table.
'Time to start being his partner,' she thought. She walked up to him as he was placing utensils and plates on the table and stood staring at him with her arms crossed and a determined look on her face.
Clark looked at her, his face still lost in thought. "I guess I should change, huh? Be back in a jiff." He disappeared in a blur. Liz shook her head and sat down. Before she got completely seated Clark was already seated in the chair next to her. "So, still hungry?" he asked with a false enthusiasm.
Liz's response was to raise her eyebrows and give him the 'spill your guts' look.
"You guessed that something is bothering me."
Liz raised her eyebrows even further up.
"OK, here it is," he said as he started to serve the food. "I checked the vault area, and truthfully the investigators had pretty much covered everything. The strange thing was the handprints."
That got Liz's attention. "The handprints?"
"Yes, it seems that there were hand prints in the door that was ripped off. In fact it looked like someone just grabbed the door and ripped it off its hinges. And it's a pretty hefty door. I'm sure that even modern cybernetic equipment is not strong enough to do that kind of damage. It would take a…"
"Super powered being," Liz finished for him, her eyes getting wider.
"Yes. And since it wasn't me, and they checked my hand size just to make sure, and it wasn't any of my family, it would mean that it was someone else. That could only be someone from…"
"New Krypton," Liz finished breathlessly.
"Why would they come back now, after so long?" Liz asked.
"I don't know. It doesn't make sense. Their culture had never really embraced this kind of subterfuge before. Their style would be more direct, especially considering the level of power they could wield under Earth's yellow sun. There's never been a hint of any other species who would have my kind of power under a yellow sun, so it must be them. But all this cloak and dagger stuff doesn't fit with an invasion of Earth by Kryptonians. We're missing something."
"Hmmm…," Liz sighed out loud, contemplating which piece of the puzzle they were missing. She absentmindedly popped a dumpling into her mouth as she was thinking. As she chewed and mulled over the possibilities, the taste of the dumpling finally invaded her thoughts. "Oh Clark, this is fantastic. Where did you get this food? I didn't think Montana had any good Chinese restaurants."
"Not really, I know a few. But I went somewhere else for the food. There's this family I know who has been selling the best Chinese food for centuries. I go there whenever I have the chance."
"Really? Centuries? I would love to interview that family. Just think of the history they must have. Where do they live?" she asked as she scooped some more food into her plate.
As Clark reached over to grab one of the other bamboo containers, he said absent-mindedly, "A little town just north of Beijing."
Liz did a double take and paused with a forkful of food near her mouth. A smile grew slowly on her face. "You flew to China, just to get us dinner?"
He looked a little guilty at her question. "Well, yeah…"
"Showing off for your girl?"
"Maybe a little," he replied sheepish. Then with a sly grin asked, "So, does that mean you're my girl?"
"Maybe. You think you can put up with someone so neurotic?"
"Maybe. You think you can put up with someone who can fly?"
"It just so happens that I promised myself that I would only fall for someone who could sweep me off my feet. Lucky for you, the flying thing is a real plus."
"Since you put it that way…" As Clark spoke, he levitated off his chair, floated over close to her and, kissed her softly on the lips. He then mischievously said, "You know, we might not finish dinner at this rate."
"Then behave yourself and sit down so I can finish my dinner," she scolded him good-naturedly. He floated back to his chair and they continued to eat their food.
But Liz still had their initial discussion rolling around in her mind. Between bits she asked, "Clark, if they were after you, why would they stay hidden? Wouldn't they be as a strong as you?"
"Almost. From the information I got from Shir¡, they probably have been here for a least a few years. But I've been here a lot longer, so I would have considerably more stored solar energy to draw from. I suppose if three or more of them ganged up on me, I'd be in trouble. I can't figure out what they could be planning, or why they're stealing high powered energy weapons to go after me. It doesn't make sense."
Liz ate her food thoughtfully, going over ideas in her mind. Scenario after scenario flashed through her mind, as she tried to fit theory to fact. Then, one scenario bubbled up from her subconscious. In her mind, she examined the scenario and tried to fit into it, all the events of the last few days. When the pieces all fell into place, she looked up at Clark and shouted, "A renegade!"
"Whampt?" asked Clark through a mouth full of food. Shifting into super speed, he finished chewing, swallowing, and wiping his mouth with napkin in the space of spent of 15 microseconds. "I mean, what?"
"Clark, he's a renegade. A criminal. Whatever you want to call him. It's a single person. That's why he's staying hidden. He's probably afraid of you."
Clark thought about it for a few moments, then said, "So you think it's a single Kryptonian who came to Earth a few years ago. Maybe he's a criminal… maybe an escaped criminal who fled to Earth."
Liz continued for him, "And he would be cautious, because he knows that you were here on Earth two hundred years ago, and still might be alive. He doesn't want to go up against you directly."
Clark then said, "So he doesn't do anything to attract attention to himself. He starts by establishing himself in American society."
Liz picked up from him. "He sees the miracle rescue stories and knows that it's you, or a descendant of yours, strong enough to oppose him. So he starts to use his powers clandestinely to accumulate money and a power base."
Clark: "And somehow he manages to get someone high up on his payroll. Someone with enough clout to know where the weapons vault is, and how to make a person's records disappear."
Liz: "Then he plans to steal the weapons…"
Clark: "…to use them on me…"
Liz: "…but needs a way to find you or draw you out…"
Clark: "…so he enlists the aid of Risse and his Nazi club, because he finds out that you have evidence of my existence."
Liz: "Then he gets Risse's guys to go after me…"
Clark: "…and after they fail…"
Liz: "…he sends out the big guns to take care of us."
Clark: "Finally, I show myself publicly in the Superman suit…"
Liz: "…and he makes his big move at the President's presentation and tries to take you out. Since that didn't work, he's probably planning his next move against you. It all fits."
"You're brilliant. What would I do without you?"
She looked at him very seriously. "Nothing. You're going to need as much help as possible with another Kryptonian going after you."
Clark tried to give her his best innocent look. "Actually, I was thinking that maybe I could handle him without much trouble. He's only been here a few years at the most, and I've had these powers for over two hundred years. One on one, I probably won't have much trouble subduing him."
"Probably? Subduing him?" Liz shook her head. 'Lois was right, he can be a lunkhead sometimes.'
"Clark. Even if you can 'subdue him' without much trouble, just what are you going to do with him once you got him? It's not like you can throw him in jail and he'll just stay there."
"Oh, I thought I would… maybe…" He shrugged. "I guess I should think of something first, huh?"
"Yes, dear, that would be a good idea." Liz said sarcastically.
With a grimace he replied, "Long range planning was never my strong suit."
"I've picked that up. Good thing you've got me now to help you out."
"A very good thing," he said warmly, giving her his best puppy dog eyes.
"Behave yourself, Rover, we've go work to do," she scolded him with a smirk on her face.
She gave him a mock glare, and dug back into her food. 'Maybe I can be a good partner for him. Lord knows he needs the help,' she thought to herself.
After finishing their meal, Clark 'zoomed' around the table, cleaning up the dishes in a couple of seconds, and then reappeared in his seat. 'Show off,' Liz thought to herself. Then out loud, "I can see where you'll be very handy around the house. I was never much into the cleaning thing myself."
"Nice to know you have a reason to keep me around," he replied with a grin.
"Hmmm, we'll see. Alright, seriously now Clark, what's our next step? Is there any way for us to find out how those records were destroyed? Or who had knowledge of the weapons vault?"
"I already thought about that. I have Shir¡ tracing where those records were accessed to see if she can trace who accessed certain terminals, or which passwords were used. She should have something for us in the morning."
"Oh yes, the *info* girl."
"Come on Elizabeth, Shir¡ is a good person. A little pushy sometimes, but she has a good heart."
"A little pushy? Clark, that's like saying the ocean is moist. OK, OK, maybe she's mostly all right. Though, I thought that death threat to me was a little over the top."
"Maybe a little, though I don't remember it being a death threat exactly," Clark replied. Then with a grin he said, "Assertive people can be real annoying sometimes, can't they?"
"I know, but then again my dad sometimes says…" She stopped mid-sentence. She looked up at him and saw the big grin on his face. "Ha Ha. Very cute."
"Sorry, couldn't resist." After a moment's thought he said, "It's getting pretty late, why don't I setup a bed for you, and we can get some sleep. It's been a pretty long day."
"That sounds good." Liz realized that her eyes were feeling a little heavy. "So where's the bed?"
"You can sleep in the side room. Here, let me show you." He led her over the side room where she had seen him go when he changed for the first time. Inside the room, there were a few chairs, a desk, a closet, and a couple of dressers, but no bed.
"Um, Clark, where's the bed?"
"I need to set it up." On the word 'up' he disappeared. For the next few seconds, he came zipping in and out of the room in a blur, depositing pieces of wood, screws, metal fittings, and tools on each trip. On his last two trips, he arrived with a mattress and some bedding. His motion stopped and Liz saw him looking at a piece of paper, while scratching the back of his neck.
With a smile he said, "Piece of cake," and shifted back into super speed. Liz watched the whirlwind of activity, and a bed began to take form. After 90 seconds, the bed was complete, with the mattress already made up with the sheets and blankets.
Liz was shaking her head at him as she said, "When you said you had to set up a bed, this is not what I had in mind. Hanging around with you is going to be so weird. Not bad, mind you, just weird."
"I'll just take that as a good sign that you think I'm weird in a good way. So, should we go to bed now?"
After recognizing how that sounded his eyes got very wide and he stammered out, "I mean, um, you know, we should… you should go to bed here. In this bed, since this is yours now. I'll just sleep out there on the couch."
"Sigh. I guess you're right, this bed is too small to share." Looking at his reaction to his comment, she grinned evilly. "You know, that 'deer-in-the-headlight' look is almost as cute as your 'puppy-dog-eyes' look."
"Clark?" she asked with a mock innocent look.
"What am I going to do with you?"
"I think I'll wait to answer that question. Now, are you going to get something from the house for me to sleep in, or maybe you just have a spare dress shirt here I could use?"
He disappeared and five seconds later reappeared with a small suitcase in his hand. "Here, I packed some of your things, along with some nice, safe pajamas." Under his breath she could hear him mutter, "Even Superman isn't that strong."
With a big smile, she shooed him out of the room so she could get ready for bed. After changing into her pajamas, she walked back into the big room to say goodnight to Clark. She found him floating on his back in the middle of the room staring at the ceiling, hands behind his head, wearing some sleeping shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. 'Nice,' she thought to herself. 'Weird, but nice.'
"Oh Clark, time to tuck me in."
She saw him smile, and then rotate to a standing position. "Only if you promise to behave yourself."
"Who, me?" she said in a sweet little girl's voice.
"Yes, you. Come on let's get you to bed."
After going back into the side room, Liz slipped into the bed and Clark pulled the blankets over her body.
"So do I get another bedtime story?" she asked.
"I should think that the last one would keep you satisfied for a while."
"You have a point. So do you have a plan for tomorrow?"
"I think we'll wait to see what Shir¡ finds out. We can plan from there."
"Alright. Goodnight then Clark."
"Goodnight sweetie." He bent over and gave her a long sweet kiss.
After their lips parted, she thought to herself, 'I think this sleeping in separate rooms business is going to get old, *real* quick.' She watch him turn around and head toward the door. A stray thought crossed her mind and before he could leave the room she called, "Um, Clark?"
Clark stopped at the doorway, and turned to look at her. "Yeah?"
"I was just wondering something. I know that I got a lot of things wrong in my book. But I was curious if it was true that… well if… you and Lois. Did you really wait until you were married before you, um… before you actually…"
"Before we were completely intimate with each other?"
"You did get that part right in your book," he answered very softly.
"Oh," was all she could say.
Clark smiled, and then turned and left the room.
Feeling very sleepy now, Liz started to drift off to sleep. Her last thoughts were of Clark, and how she fell more in love with him every time she discovered something new about him.
Liz woke up the next morning to the smell of coffee and bakery goods. She got out of bed and followed the coffee's aroma into the next room. Walking in, she saw Clark, in his Superman suit, sitting at the table with a cup of coffee in one hand and a reader screen in the other. He seemed mesmerized by whatever he was reading. She crept silently up behind him until she was standing right behind him. Just as she was going to kiss him on the back of the neck he said, "Good morning, sweetie. Coffee?"
"Rat. It's not fair that you have super hearing and can hear me creeping up on you."
"Actually it's your heartbeat that gave you away. I heard that as soon as you entered the room."
"Really? Wow! I suppose I'll get used to all this in a couple of years."
"I hope so," he said through a grin and looked up to receive a short kiss from her.
Looking over at the table, she saw a small white bag next to a couple of plates Next to the plates was a mug of coffee with cream and sugar containers next to it.. Pointing to it she asked, "Breakfast?"
"Yeah, help yourself. But let me check the coffee first." He picked up her mug and held his hand over the top for a second. He stared into the coffee for a few seconds, gave the mug back to Liz, and went back to looking at the reader. Liz could see steam rising out of the mug, and it was warm to the touch.
With an amused chuckle, she sat down and opened the bag. Inside were a few pastries and croissants. Selecting one, she started munching on it as she added sugar and cream to her coffee. She looked thoughtfully at Clark as he read the news on the reader, and then started to giggle, which in turn became a full laugh attack. Clark looked up at her from his reader with a confused scowl. "Mind letting me in on the joke?"
Composing herself, but still wearing a big grin, she replied, "It's just that if you asked me a week ago how I would picture having breakfast with Superman, this would definitely not be the first image that would pop into my mind. I guess just seeing you there in the suit, looking so nonchalant, sipping your coffee and reading the news… well it was so… amusing. Really does a lot to break down my old 'stoic hero' preconceptions."
Clark look down at himself and said, "Oh, I guess I did forget to change."
"Yes you did, dear," she amusedly commented. "Just why are you in the suit?"
"I was out this morning doing a patrol around the country, letting people get used to seeing me again. Did a few rescues, got a cat out of a tree. You know, the usual early morning super hero stuff."
"So where did you go for breakfast this morning, Paris?"
"No, too late in the day there to get fresh stuff. I picked those up in New Orleans." He chuckled at little to himself. "I'm not sure if that shop owner has closed his mouth yet, after my visit."
"You didn't buy these dressed like that?"
He shrugged. "I was in a hurry."
"You're such a little kid sometimes. Are you sure that you're 225 years old?"
"Ha, just proves my point. So you find out anything yet?"
"No, but I expect to hear from Shir¡ any moment now." Just as he finished his sentence, the Comm unit on the wall started ringing.
"Hey, that's pretty good, how did you do that?" Liz asked. "Another super power you didn't tell me about?"
"Ha Ha. Computer answer Comm, audio only mode." Stepping to the Comm unit he said, "Hello."
"Hey big guy, I've got some interesting news for you."
"I was able to back trace the removal of the records. The deletion was very thorough, but it left several holes in backup archives in Washington. By doing a little date matching, I was able to deduce which holes matched which people. Then I started tracing back the commands that cleared the records. From there I was able to track down which terminals, when they were accessed, and who logged on to… <yawn> … them."
"Are you O.K. Shir¡?" Clark asked.
"Sorry, I haven't slept in a while. I spent all night here doing these traces. And that idiot Ned decided he needed to be here because 'he had work to catch up on'. Kept coming in all night asking me if I needed coffee." There was a pause before she continued. "It was good coffee." The line became silent again.
"Um, Shir¡, the traces?" Clark asked.
"Oh yes, right. I found out that the terminal accessed was in the White House."
"The White House?" Liz saw Clark's distressed look at Shir¡'s discovery. Then in a whisper almost too faint for Liz to hear, "It couldn't be. Not Charlie."
Shir¡ continued, not hearing Clark's last comment. "At first I thought it might be the President. I always thought he couldn't be as good as they portray him to be, and still be a politician. You'd think he was a big Boy Scout the way the media paints him. But then that didn't make any sense, because he could have just opened the vault door with his access codes and not leave any evidence. So I made use of this new trick someone showed me to retrieve the login codes and passwords used on specific terminals."
"Amazing," said Clark.
"Yes, it is a neat little trick."
"No, I meant amazing that you would actually admit to the fact that someone could teach you something."
"Very funny, Smith. It just so happens I'm always open to learn new things, even if it comes from someone like… Ned." Liz heard the mixture of disgust and embarrassment in her voice.
"Oh, really? So what did this new trick tell you?"
"It told us that the person who accessed the computers which wiped out those criminals' record was Margaret Bateman. Vice President Margaret Bateman."
"By the way, is your girlfriend still there?" asked Shir¡.
"Yes, *I'm* here." Liz shot back at her.
"Sorry honey, just thought you'd like to know that you won't have to worry about Risse any longer."
"Why is that?" Liz asked, her curiosity now piqued.
"Because someone decided that it would be more convenient for him not to exist anymore, and removed his head from his body. Actually, disintegrated would be a more accurate description."
"Oh my…" Liz was shocked at the revelation, but she knew that she shouldn't be. Those people obviously had no qualms about killing someone, as demonstrated by their attempt to kill Clark at EPRAD.
"These guys mean business. Both of you better watch your back. Caleb, I need to get this information to someone, but I'm not sure who to trust at this point."
"Send it directly to the President's office," Caleb instructed her. "I'm going to contact him personally as soon as we get off the line and let him know what's going on."
Liz could hear a little surprise in Shir¡'s voice as she asked, "You know Charles Lane?"
"Yes I do, and if there's anyone we can trust, it's him. You know that 'Boy Scout' image he has?"
"Well, it's true. It's a family trait." Then after a thought, Clark said, "I don't think you should be alone right now either, these guys do mean business. Do you have anyone who can stay with you for a while?"
Liz could hear Shir¡ snicker on the other end of the line. "Ned has been following me around all night acting like a lost puppy dog I picked off the streets. I suppose he would volunteer to stick around if I asked him. Of course, I'll never be able to get rid of him after that." Her voice trailed off to a soft whisper on her last sentence.
Her voice regained her normally commanding tone. "All right Smith, get going. Get a hold of the President right away. We'll keep digging into things over here to see if we can discover any motives for their actions. Be careful."
"You too, bye Shir¡." With a click the line went dead.
Clark then dug into his pocket and took out the President's card. Dialing the number into the Comm unit, he waited until various operators transferred him from line to line until finally they heard the President's voice on the speaker.
Clark outlined the information they had got from Shir¡ plus Liz's theory of the renegade from New Krypton. After hearing the part about the Vice President, Charlie became very quiet.
"I'm sorry, Clark. I just can't believe that Margaret would be part of all this."
"It's possible that she's just being used. How do you want to handle it, and can I help?" asked Clark.
Again there was a few moments silence. "I think that we should confront her directly. I'd like you there. And if she's willing, I think Dr. Ellington should be there too."
Clark looked to Liz, who gave him a nod of agreement. "We'll be there. Where and when should we meet."
"Meet me at the White House in 40 minutes, I'll be standing out on one of the back balconies."
"Alright, Charlie, 40 minutes then. Goodbye."
"Goodbye, and thanks, Clark." A click signaled the end of the call.
"I better go get ready, then. I wonder why he wanted me there?" Liz asked.
"I think that he just wanted a third set of eyes to gauge her reaction when we confront her."
<Snort> "Yeah, like I'm an expert on people. Don't bother to comment, the future of my career is still up in the air. Stay here and finish your coffee, I'll be out in a sec." She bent over from behind him, gave him a quick peck on the cheek, and then went back to the side room to change.
As she was dressing, a humorous thought crossed her mind. "Clark?"
"Yep," he shouted from the other room.
"I was thinking, if I keep hanging out with you when you're in the suit, you might have to get me a costume too."
"Sure honey, we'll stop at the superhero uniform shop on the way to D.C."
Liz giggled at his comment and finished dressing. Coming out into the main room, she saw that Clark had cleaned up breakfast and was at the Comm unit talking to someone. "I can pick you up in 5 minutes in your hover, and fly you to Metropolis. When you get to Star Labs you'll use my pass codes to retrieve it. I'll be busy in D.C., so make sure your hover is charged up enough to get back here on your own. We'll meet at Mary's office after you get back."
Liz could hear Jeb voice come through the Comm unit speaker. "So what does this thing look like?"
"You'll know it when you see it. I'll meet you back at Mary's office in the afternoon. Thanks again Jeb."
"My pleasure Superman. We'll be ready when you get here. See you then."
"See you then Jeb, bye."
As he turned around to face her she asked, "What exactly *is* Jeb and Mary getting for you?"
"Star Labs has something that we could use against a Kryptonian. I set this up with them a long time ago in case we had any more trouble with the New Kryptonians, or even from…" Clark look embarrassed to finish his thought aloud.
"…even from me. I sometimes worry what would happen if I ever lost control for any reason."
"Clark, that would never happen!"
"I just feel better knowing that it's there, but thanks for the confidence in me. I'm having Jeb and Mary retrieve it as backup. I'll be back in about 20 minutes, then we'll get going to the White House." With a 'whoosh' he was gone, and Liz went back to 'making herself presentable enough' to be seen at the White House.
True to his word, just under 20 minutes later Clark arrived back at he Fortress. "Ready to go?"
"As ready as I'll ever be."
"Do you want a countdown?" he asked as he picked her up.
"I think just a simple 'are you ready?' will suffice."
"Go for it, flyboy."
With a 'whoosh' they were gone. Once they were in the air, Liz started enjoying the view and the feeling of being carried by Clark in his arms. Looking at Clark, she recalled when she was 10 years old, and would exchange romantic fantasies with her friends. 'I bet the girls from Miss Tan's 5th grade class would be jealous if they could see me now.' She spent the remainder of the trip with her head snuggled in Clark's chest, and soon she dozed off into a peaceful sleep.
"Elizabeth, we're here."
"Hmmm?" Liz asked groggily.
"I said we're here. Ready to meet Charlie?"
Liz looked around and saw that they were hovering above the clouds. "Sure, I'm awake." Then with a sheepish grin, "I guess I dozed off."
"Yes, you did," he replied with a grin. He then looked down through the clouds and said, "I see that Charlie is there waiting for us. Ready?"
Liz rubbed her eyes and looked at Clark. "I guess so." As they began to descend, Liz could see the landmarks of D.C. Finally they drew near the White House and landed on the balcony where the President was standing.
"Thanks for coming Clark. You too, Dr. Ellington."
"Please call me Liz, Mr. President."
"Sure, as long as you call me Charlie," he said with a smile. Then getting more serious, "Margaret is in her office, I told her that I would be stopping by in a few minutes. Shall we go?"
"One second," Clark said. He stepped back and spun into a blur of color. When he stopped he was dressed in a business suit with a very colorful tie and was even wearing a pair of glasses.
The President looked at him with a dumbfounded expression. "You've really got to tell me how you do that someday." Shaking his head to get back into focus, he said, "This way."
Liz followed Charlie and Clark down the halls of the White House. She looked at the two men as she walked, marveling at the similarities between them, even 8 generations removed. Charlie in his own way had carried on the tradition that Clark had started 200 hundred years ago — helping out in the best way he knew how. She knew the President's reputation for being a champion of the underdog, and had spent the first year of his term establishing programs for the poor and underprivileged. A Boy Scout, just like Clark.
'I can see why Clark is proud of what Charlie has done.' Then after a beat. 'Clark… Charlie… Oh lord, I'm on a first name basis with Superman and the President. This has definitely been a strange week.'
They arrived at the Vice President's office and Charlie went to the door to knock. A voice inside could be heard saying, "Come in." Charlie opened the door and ushered them into the office. Vice President Bateman was sitting at her desk examining some papers. She looked up and said, "Good Morning, Charles, what can I do for you? And who are your friends?" She was smiling sweetly and indicating towards Clark and Elizabeth.
"Margaret, this is Dr. Elizabeth Ellington and her friend, um…"
"Clark," said Clark in a friendly manner.
"Yes, Clark," he said looking at Clark. Then turning back to the Vice President he continued. "They've been investigating various criminal occurrences recently and have discovered some troubling information about a staff member in the White House. It seems that someone in the White House was party to destroying the records of known criminals so that they could be free to perform illegal acts without being traced easily. It also seems that this same person gave out the location of the Mark 7 weapons vault to some unknown person or persons, who in turn stole some of the weapons out of that vault."
Liz could see that Clark was intently studying the Vice President as Charlie was speaking. She didn't have super senses like Clark, but even she could see that the Vice President was squirming.
"Before I continue, I was wondering if you had anything you would like to share?"
The Vice President just shook her head, but her nervousness, though subtle, was obvious to Liz.
"Through what, I am told, are some very innovative techniques, Dr. Ellington and Clark were able to find out who it was that issued those commands. The name they came up with fits, because that person is also one of the few people who know about the existence of the weapons vault. Are you sure you have nothing to say?"
The Vice President scowled for a moment and then looked the President directly in the eye. "I do have something to say, Charles. You're an idiot." She then raised one of her hands, which had been resting on her lap, to reveal a small, but nasty looking hand weapon. She pointed it directly at Charlie.
"In case your wondering, I've gotten real tired of the attitudes of most people these days. It's almost sickening. Everyone falling over one another to achieve this 'Utopia' that's been rumored to occur around this time. And you're the worst of all. You know what Charles? I don't want to give all my money away to the poor. I want to keep it and have a little fun. You remember fun, don't you?"
Charlie looked at his Vice President with such defeat in his eyes. "Margaret, I trusted you. How could you…" He took a moment to compose himself before continuing. "How could you betray all the values we hold? How could you betray me?"
"Hate to break this news to you *Chuck*, but you're the only one who holds those values. And as far as betraying you, I don't remember any loyalty on your part when you turned me down."
"Margaret, I told you a long time ago that I didn't think of you in that way. But I thought we were friends, that we respected each other."
"I guess you learn something new every day. In your case, it's going to be the hard way, since I can't let you go now." She waved her weapon at all three of them very menacingly.
"So just who do you work for then?" Clark chimed in.
"How do you know that I work for anyone?"
"Reporter's instinct," he said matter of factly.
"You really have no idea who you're dealing with," she sneered.
"Neither do you," Clark muttered under his breath. Then louder, "Let me guess, a super powered person who was able to rip the door off the vault with his bare hands."
The Vice President's eyes got very wide for a second, then she was able to compose herself once more. "Pretty good, your sources must be excellent. Not that it matters anymore."
"So where is he now?" Clark pressed.
"Truthfully I have no idea, he never stays in one place. But he always can get a hold of me. Anything else?" she asked sarcastically.
Clark shrugged and shook his head. He then raised his hand as if to say one more thing. "I did forget to give you my full name. It's Clark…" He turned into a blur and zoomed around desk, reappearing a second later back in his original spot, holding the weapon in his hand. "…Kent." To emphasis his statement he closed his hand and crushed the weapon in it. He dropped the crushed weapon on her desk.
The Vice President was staring at him in disbelief, stunned into silence. Liz could hear the President calling on the DeskComm for Secret Service agents to report to the office to take the Vice President into custody. Charlie then looked to Clark and Liz and asked, "Do you think that she was telling the truth about being able to contact the New Kryptonian?"
Liz and Clark look at each other, and made a silent acknowledgement of agreement. "She was telling the truth about that," Liz said.
"So what have we got left, Charlie?"
"Hmmm… Thanks to you, we have accounted for all but two…" Charlie looked at the crushed weapon on the desk and corrected himself. "Make that all but one weapon accounted for. But the one missing is one the big ones."
"Great," replied Clark.
"I think that what's left is finding this Kryptonian. Any ideas on how to find him?" ask the President.
"None at the moment," said Clark. By this time the Secret Service agents had handcuffed the Vice President and was ushering her out of the office.
"Bill," the President called to one of the agents. "Take her somewhere quiet, and don't let anybody else know what's going on. This stays quiet until I say so, understood?"
"Yes sir." The agents then took the Vice President away.
Liz turned to Clark to speak to him. "Clark, I hate to say this, but I don't think we have to find that Kryptonian. I think he's going to come after you."
"She has a point, Grandpa. Sorry, Clark. If he's got that Mark 7, it's possible he can really hurt you. Do you want backup?"
"Thanks Charlie, but I already have backup. In fact, I'm going to rendezvous with them in a little while with something that can help me out."
"It's your call Clark, but if you need anything, you know how to contact me."
"Thanks, Charlie. We'd better go." He spun back into the suit and went to the window. After opening it, he held out his hand toward Liz. "Ready to go, Elizabeth?"
Liz nodded and walked over the Clark, who scooped her into his arms. He slowly lifted into the air and flew through the window with Liz in his arms. After gaining some altitude, they headed back toward Montana.
"This may be just a wild guess on my part, but you don't have a definite plan at this point, do you?" Liz asked as they flew westward.
"I thought we'd work out some plans together after we got back. I'm a little rusty on this planning thing. Most of my superhero stuff for last few decades has been rescues and the occasional mugger. I haven't dealt with megalomaniacs in a long time.."
"Well, you have me to help you now."
"Thank you, Elizabeth. Thanks for caring." He placed a soft kiss on the top of her head.
Liz snuggled contently against his chest, and enjoyed the view. Soon she recognized the Montana landscape and they began to slow down. Clark then came to a stop, and was looking at something off in the distance that only he could see from here.
"What's wrong, Clark?"
"There's a disturbance back at the prison again." He concentrated some more and then continued. "They seem to be evacuating the prison, and there's some kind of large device sitting near the front entrance. Great." After a large sigh, he looked Liz in the eye and asked, "I don't suppose you would let me take you to the Fortress, before I go check this out?"
"No way buster, I'm coming along."
"I thought not, just had to ask first." He pointed them in the direction of the prison and took off as fast as he could with Liz in his arms. Arriving at the prison, he deposited Liz on the ground, and walked over to examine the device. A team of people was around the device, examining it with sophisticated sensor equipment.
One of the team look up and exclaimed, "Superman! We may need your help. This thing is some kind of high yield explosive. It has magnetic field sensors, so moving it would set off some kind of triggering device. And we're afraid that opening the casing would set it off too."
"Let me have a look." Clark swept the device with his eyes. A look of grim determination set on his face. "Damn!" Turning to the team of experts he said, "Clear your people, there's nothing you can do here, I need to take care of this."
With a concerned voice, the team leader asked, "Just what are we dealing with here, Superman?"
"This is an anti-matter bomb, with a countdown timer running inside. In less than 6 minutes, unless I can figure out a way to stop it, this device will destroy a large percentage of Montana."
The bomb squad quickly got away from the device to allow Superman to deal with it. Clark turned to Liz. "Any ideas?"
"Can't you carry it away safely in the time that is left?"
Clark shook his head. "No, the bomb squad was right, it has magnetic field sensors. If I move it at all it would sense the change due to the Earth's magnetic field lines and trigger… something. I don't know what." Clark was staring intently at the bomb as he spoke, obviously examining the inner working. "I just need to figure out how this thing is wired."
Just then a voice could be heard coming from a small speaker mounted on the device. "Hello Superman. I guess by now that you're pretty frustrated, since you can't just flex your muscles and make the problem go away. So just to be fair I'll give you a hint. That magnetic sensor is wired to an 8 second fuse. As soon as you move the device you have 8 seconds to get it away from the earth. Of course you better be pretty far away, seeing as if you're too close, the fall out will kill a lot of people anyway. Since this is how the last Superman died, I thought it would be a nice tribute to get rid of you the same way."
Liz looked at Clark in panic, who was staring at the speaker with as much fury as she ever seen in his face. "You maniac! You risk the lives of millions of people, just to get at me. If you want me, I'm here. Come and get me."
"My, how commanding. No, I don't use my muscles to think for me. I think I'll let you get rid of the bomb, and in turn, yourself, without having to break a sweat. Just for your information, you have 3 minutes to decide. Nice talking to you."
"Clark, there must be another way!"
Clark didn't take his eyes off the device when he answered her. "No, there's not, there's no time. You know what I have to do." Then turning to her he said, "Remember that I love you. And the last week has been… well, it was the happiest I've been in long time."
"Not counting the people trying to kill us," he added with a sad grin. "Come here."
She went to him and he enveloped her in his arms. She felt themselves moving very quickly away from the bomb. They stopped a couple hundred yards away on top of a small hill. "Take care of yourself, Elizabeth." He bent down and gave a long, deep kiss.
"Clark Jerome Kent, you come back to me. Don't you dare die on me."
He just smiled sadly, and released her. "Goodbye Elizabeth."
He rose into the air and headed off away from the prison. A few seconds later a fast blur moved past her at an impossible speed, leaving a loud sonic boom in its wake. The blur hit the device and moved quickly out of sight into the sky.
"That was well done, don't you think?" asked a deep voice behind Liz. Liz turned around to see a tall man with a slight build standing behind her. He looked a little taller than Clark, but much thinner. He wore an evil sneer on his face. She heard him complete a countdown. "3… 2… 1…"
A bright light filled the sky. Even in the middle of the day, it flared brighter than the sun for a moment. "Clark…" Liz got out in a strangled whisper.
The stranger behind was looking into the sky, staring intently at something far away. "Very well done, indeed. I dare say that none of the fallout will ever reach the Earth before being dissipated by the solar wind. The boy was even smart enough to fly it out of the ecliptic plane."
"Who the hell are you?" Liz spat at him.
"Sorry, I didn't introduce myself right away. My name is David Kripple, formerly Kro-Ran of the planet New Krypton. You must be Dr. Ellington. I must say I enjoyed your book on Kal-El immensely. It was most amusing."
His calm, arrogant expression only served to enrage Liz. "You bastard." She swung to hit him in the face, only to have her hand caught by a vice like grip.
"Now, now dear, that wouldn't do at all. Though I must warn you, all you would accomplish may be to break your hand." He roughly shoved her backwards, causing her to fall to the ground.
Liz glared at him with a look of hatred that could kill a mortal man. "Why?"
"Oh, it's nothing personal. He would just get in my way. I can't have fun with a do gooder superhero running around. And I came here so I could have fun without anybody being able to stop me. On my planet, my family used to be part of the nobility class. We were treated special, as we deserved to be. But after visiting here two hundred years ago, my people were tainted. They started to develop 'democracy' and the ruling families just disappeared. Now everyone is 'equal'. They thought I was insane for trying to reestablish the nobility, even threw me in prison for a time. Since they wouldn't listen to me, I came here. Now that there's no more superhero to stop me, I can do whatever I damn well please and people will have to listen to me."
He then looked Liz over for a moment, like a predator examining a prey. "You know, instead of killing you, I am considering asking you to be my concubine for a while. You have two of the most magnificent green eyes I've ever seen. And I never kill a concubine that performs well, it motivates them to make their best efforts to please me. Women with nothing to lose are rarely very enjoyable. So, what do you say?"
"Have it your way, then." He shrugged nonchalantly, and stared directly at her. Liz cringed in anticipation of however Kro-Ran intended to kill her. Suddenly a violent blast of wind blew over that area, accompanied with a deafening thunderclap. Liz looked up to see, standing in the spot where Kro-Ran had been a moment ago, Superman, his fist outstretched in front of him. His cape was gone, and parts of his uniform were either torn, burned, or both. He dropped his hand to his side and turned to her. "You OK?"
"Clark, you're alive!" She got up and started to run towards him. He held up his hand to signal her to stop.
"You can't touch me yet, my body is still too hot from my reentry." He let out a long sigh, and continued. "That was really close. Good thing for me, he underestimated my power. He didn't realize that he was dealing with the original Superman." Then with a concerned look, he asked again, "Are you sure that you're alright, because if you are, I need to go and finish this."
Liz could only nod at him. Seeing that she was unharmed, he disappeared in a blur. Liz shook her head clear, and got up to see where Clark had gone to. 'He came back to me. He really came back.' She switched from that happy thought to a more vengeful one. 'Now I want to see Clark kick his…' She ran over the hill in the direction of the sounds of the super powered battle.
As she made it over the hill, she saw Clark and Kro-Ran exchanging blows at both normal and super speed. Clark seemed to have the advantage, employing his Tae Kwon Do skills to the battle. As the fight progressed, Kro-Ran's blows became slower and slower, while Clark was picking and choosing his blows with great care and precision.
Then Clark executed a back side kick and hit Kro-Ran directly in the solar plexus. The noise of the blow sounded like a large explosion. Kro-Ran was knocked backwards and hit the ground hard, making a body-sized indentation into the ground. Clark walked slowly and purposely over the where Kro-Ran lay. Kro-Ran for his part didn't look like he was going anywhere, anytime soon.
Liz was so intent on the battle that she didn't hear anyone coming up besides her. She turned to see Jeb and Mary standing next to her, Jeb's hover just a few feet away. "Jeb. Mary. I'm glad you're here, though you missed most of the excitement so far."
"Truth be told, we caught most of that fight. That boy sure packs a wallop," Jeb said with a grin.
"He did say that he could take care of a New Kryptonian one-on-one. But I'm worried about what to do with him, now that Superman has captured him."
"Not to worry. I got a little present from Star Labs that could be adapted to keep him in line. We'll just need to tell…" Jeb was interrupted with a sound of a weapons blast. Liz turned to see Clark getting struck in the back by a brilliant beam of light, and knocking him to the ground. Kro-Ran slowly rose off the ground and approached Clark.
Liz frantically looked around and spotted the source of the beam that had struck Clark. A woman, dressed like a deputy, was holding the missing Mark 7 weapon, and pointing it in the general direction of Clark. Kro-Ran picked up Clark and shoved him away to give the shooter another clear shot. The weapon blasted again, hitting Clark, causing him to fall to his hands and knees.
"No!" Liz shouted as she broke out into a run towards the shooter. On the way there she scooped up the largest rock she could pick up with one hand. The shooter, intent on targeting Clark again, did not hear Liz approach. When Liz got close enough, she wound up, and pitched the rock at the shooter with all of her strength. The rock sailed through air and struck the woman with the gun squarely in the temple before she could get off another shot. She dropped to the ground unconscious.
"That'll teach you to take pot shots at my man." Before Liz could move to try to retrieve the weapon, Kro-Ran flew in, grabbed the gun from the unconscious shooter and zoomed back to where Clark lay.
Without pausing to think about it, Liz turned to run back to Jeb. She needed him to bring out whatever he had received from Star Labs, and help defend Clark. Drawing near to Jeb's hover, she saw that Jeb and Mary were already walking down to the area where Clark was laying, and quickly took off after them.
Running down the hill, she saw Kro-Ran take another shot at Clark. She pushed herself to run faster, not really sure what she was going to do when she got there. All she knew was that she had to help somehow. She arrived at the battle scene to see Kro-Ran raise the weapon once again.
"NO!" she shouted. It was loud enough to get his attention.
"How amusing. His little pet comes to defend him. Don't fret dear, I'll get to you soon enough. Just need to finish off this little problem first. By the by, nice shot with that rock. Very impressive," he sneered.
As Kro-Ran aimed the weapon at Clark, she could hear Jeb next to her say, "Alright boy, party's over. Drop the weapon." She turned to see Jeb standing near her, pointing an ancient Colt 45 pistol at Kro-Ran.
Kro-Ran chuckled condescendingly at Jeb. "Now this is actually getting annoying. I've changed my mind. You'll die first, then Superman." Kro-Ran swung the weapon around to point it at Jeb. Before he could finish the arc, Jeb pulled the trigger of the Colt 45 twice.
Liz saw a look of utter astonishment appear on the face of Kro-Ran as the bullets struck his body. He dropped the weapon to the ground and looked at his chest. Liz saw blood coming from two small holes in his shirt. In an unbelieving voice, Kro-Ran's said, "You shot me."
"I did at that. Now stand down or I'll finish the job." Jeb's voice had a tone that Liz recognized as one belonging to a trained military man.
Kro-Ran's surprise turned to anger. He shouted, "If you think I'm going to surrender to you, you can just go to Hell!" He bent over and retrieved the Mark 7. Before he could bring the weapon fully up, Jeb fired the rest of the gun's clip into Kro-Ran, causing him drop the weapon again. He stood there for a moment, shock on his face. Then his expression grew blank, and he fell forward to the ground with a loud thud. Jeb walked solemnly up to the fallen Kro-Ran.
"You first," he said, looking down at the fallen figure.
He then reset the gun's slide back, and placed it in the back of his pants belt. Liz ran over to Clark, while Mary walked over to Jeb. Mary put her arm around him as she looked down at the fallen Kryptonian, and pulled him close to her. Jeb whispered softly, "Seven years in the Special Forces, and that was the first time I actually had to shoot someone."
Mary touched his shoulder gently. "Jacob, he gave you no choice. You saved Superman's life, and probably a lot of other lives that monster would have killed if you hadn't stop him today."
"Yeah," he said in a sigh.
"Come on, let's check on Superman."
Jeb nodded his head and followed her over to where Liz was holding Superman in her arms.
"How is he?" Mary asked.
"He's still breathing, but we need to get him away from here. I assume that gun had Kryptonite bullets in it."
Jeb regained some of his focus. "If Kryptonite is some kind of green glowing crystal, then yes."
"That's it. Jeb, get your hover down here, so we can get Superman out of the area. Then I need you to call the same guys at Star Labs that gave you the Kryptonite. Tell them to retrieve that body, and get rid of whatever Kryptonite is left."
Without a word, Jeb took off in a run toward his hover. A minute later he was pulling the hover up besides them. By this time, some of the Marshal's deputies had arrived and were able to assist getting Superman in the vehicle.
With Mary supervising the Deputies, Jeb pulled Liz over to the side to talk to her privately. "Mary and I will take care of everything here. You get Superman home, and take care of him."
Jeb chuckled briefly. "Even an old codger like me can notice that the look Superman gives you is exactly the same one my old friend Caleb gives you." He gave her a conspiratory wink.
Liz shook her head. "Thank you, Jeb. For everything. I can only imagine how hard that must have been for you." Then after a moment's thought she asked, "How does an engineer get to be in the Special Forces?"
"It was a long time ago, when I was young and stupid. Now 'git woman, and take care of our hero. Just remind him that when he gets better, he needs to take a little time to dig out my SUV."
"Yes, sir." Liz gave him a mock salute, and then bent over to kiss him on the cheek. She walked over to the hover, and climbed into the driver's seat. After entering the coordinates for Clark's / Caleb's house, she took off.
Thirty minutes later they pulled up in front of Clark's house. Clark, fortunately, had just enough energy to climb out of the hover with Liz's assistance. She guided him to the bedroom and got him to sit down on his bed. She looked him over for a few moments deciding what to do next. 'Turn about is fair play, I guess. Hope Clark doesn't mind me taking this off him.'
After a minute of examination, she figured out how to get off his top and his boots. When she started on his pants, she discovered that there was nothing underneath them. 'Well, I guess I know what those red shorts are for now,' she thought with a grin. After managing to get him to lay down, she covered him with the quilt. Finding a chair in the room, she pulled it close to the side of the bed, and sat down next to him, taking his hand in hers. Seeing a stray lock of hair falling on his forehead, she gently brushed it up into place with her other hand.
She looked at him sleeping peacefully, marveling at what they had survived this day. Even after this short time, there was no doubt in her mind that they were meant to be together. That she could be his other half, giving him the support he needed. There may be lots of details to work out. Like when she made him take her out on their first official date, would he take her out as Caleb Smith or Clark Kent? But they were just that — details. Nothing that two people in love couldn't handle. 'Two people in love…,' she thought wistfully. 'I was right, being in this house was like a fairy tale. Of course the damsel had to take her turn to help save the errant knight.'
She looked at her errant knight as he peacefully slept, his body repairing the damage done by the stolen weapon. She would sit here with him until he woke, and then take care of him, as he had done for her. And she would make sure that, for as long as they both should live, he would not be lonely anymore.
Chapter 18 — Clark's Epilogue
The church looks beautiful, bright and full of exotic flowers. Of course it helps that I could go anywhere in the world, to get any flower I want, in a moment's notice. Elizabeth teases me that I'm so spoiled. Of course she didn't complain when I fetched us food from Ching Ying's in China last night.
I pull at the collar of my tux for the hundredth time. You think that being invulnerable, it wouldn't bother me. Must be nerves. I don't want to mess this up today. I look over at Jeb standing next to me in his tux. He looks as nervous as me. He hates tuxedos, of course, but there was no arguing with Mary about it. I guess Jeb and I are destined to be attracted to strong willed women.
I look over to my right and can see the minister coming in to take his place. He nods to both Jeb and I, and I smile back. Within moments the room is filled with organ music, and the notes of the 'Wedding March' reverberate though the church. The doors at the entrance open, and I turn to see Elizabeth walk though. She looks beautiful in her dress, as she walks down the aisle. Watching her, I feel like the luckiest man on the Earth. Actually, considering where I'm from, the luckiest man in the universe.
Jeb and I both look down the aisle, and see Mary coming up behind Elizabeth. She also looks lovely in her cream- colored wedding gown. She's being escorted by her younger brother, whom I met at the rehearsal dinner last night. I look over at Jeb, and can tell that he is looking at Mary with thoughts similar to the ones I just had for Elizabeth.
Elizabeth reaches the altar, and takes her place opposite me. I look at her and smile, and she rewards me with that smile that makes even a Superman's heart skip a beat. A glitter of light from her hand catches my eye, and I look tenderly at her wedding ring. Hard to believe that we've been married for 3 months already. I should get her something special for our 3 month anniversary tomorrow. She'll probably scold me for indulging her again, but I'll just take that risk. <snicker>
I can hear the minister ask who gives Mary away to be married. Her brother presents her to Jeb, and they take their places in front of the minister. As the ceremony begins, I think again of the gift I have been given in Elizabeth's love. I had been an idiot for so long, thinking I had used up all of my love with Lois. I will always love Lois. I will never forget her, because part of her will always be with me. But now, a special lady, the one standing across from me, has taught me that my heart has enough room to love someone again.
After I asked Elizabeth to marry me, she showed me the letter from Lois. It was so like Lois to do something like that. After we both had a good cry about it, I realized that the last vestiges of guilt were gone. That even though I would carry Lois in my heart forever, there was plenty of room in there for me to love someone else again. And Lois gave her blessings for that. No man should be so fortunate twice, but it seems that I am.
And Elizabeth has been the best wife I could have hoped for. After much debate, we decided that hiding behind Caleb would just lead to too many problems. And the world is really a much gentler place than it was when I first put on the suit. Amazingly she even decided to adopt my last name and became Elizabeth Kent. She jokingly said something about her name being too alliterative. There have been some challenges, but we're doing pretty good. Really well, actually.
And we should be finishing that book within the next few months. After much cajoling, I convinced Elizabeth not to switch careers. We have been writing the true story of my family together. Truthfully, it feels great to write again… to write with a partner again. Elizabeth and I make a great team.
The ceremony gets to point where they exchange the rings, and I reach into my pocket and hand them to the minister. I can feel the love that Jeb and Mary have for each other, seeing it in their eyes as they place the rings on each other's fingers. The minister pronounces them husband and wife, and they kiss for the first time as a married couple. I see Elizabeth getting teary-eyed watching Jeb and Mary. She does feel things so deeply. And I do love her so much. I never thought it would be possible for me to feel this way again, but it happened. In some ways I feel that I wasted a lot of time the last 120 years, but in others I'm glad that it took so long, because it meant that it was Elizabeth who opened my heart again.
Jeb and Mary start down the aisle, and I hold out my hand for Elizabeth to take. She places her hand in mine and looks at me with a big smile and watery eyes. I smile back at her and I feel our connection. I feel it touch my heart as I grasp her hand. We walk together down the aisle, as we did 3 months ago, hand in hand, in love.
Author's Afterword: Well, it's done. I didn't think I'd get it done in time before I had to leave. Thank you to everyone who read it. I know that some of you were disappointed that Lois was not in the story (except for her letter), but I wanted the story to address with how a man deals with the loss of his wife. Originally, I planned for Clark never to fall in love again, even maybe dying in the story, and rejoining Lois in the hereafter. But in some ways that would be too easy. I was exploring how a man survives the death of his wife and still finds a way to live without her.
At another point I toyed with the idea (and it was suggested in some feedback) that Elizabeth be the reincarnation of Lois. But that would be too easy too. In real life (well mostly real life, in a universe where there is a super powered being from another planet) when you lose your wife, she doesn't come back, and you're left alone to deal with life without her.
I was actually stuck for a while how to proceed with the story. Along the way of writing this, I learned something. Something a friend pointed out to me. That the capacity of the human heart to love is very large. Big enough to love someone who has passed away, with plenty of room to spare to care for… even to love, someone new. That was the key that allowed me to finish this story. I hope that thought was expressed properly in the story, and you enjoyed reading it. And that you were satisfied how Clark handled opening his heart once again.
— Jon Wolff