By Meredith Knight <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: November 2002
Summary: Clark lives on the family farm with Martha, a crippled Jonathan and a mountain of debt. One day, in true fairy-tale tradition, a complete stranger offers him a gift: the plans for a magical device which will take Clark to another universe, where he will find his "heart's desire."
This started as a bit of fluff for the fairy-tale challenge, but it quickly turned into something more serious. Still, it was fun adapting the framework of Jack and the Beanstalk for the Lois and Clark universe. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. <g>
I have many people to thank for help with this story: Missy for hugely helpful brainstorming, Shayne for inventive acronym suggestions, Jill for technical input on osteoarthritis, and LabRat for being such an inspirational BR. And, of course, the faithful readers on the MBs for chuckles and screams and useful criticism.
I understand Jack and the Beanstalk to be in the public domain. All rights in recognisable characters belong to DC Comics, Warner Brothers, etc. — I just borrowed them for a while. No copyright infringement is intended.
<<Once upon a time, a poor widow lived with her son Jack in a little cottage. Their only wealth consisted of a milking cow. When the cow got too old to produce milk, Jack's mother sent him to the market to sell it. On the way, he met a stranger who offered him five magic beans in exchange for the cow…>>
CHAPTER ONE: The Stranger
Clark sat in the old tree, next to the Fortress of Solitude, looking out over the beloved land he called home and listening to the peaceful sounds of the country. It was a warm day for so early in the spring, yet he sat huddled with his arms around his knees, shivering slightly from time to time.
This might be the last chance he would have to enjoy peace and solitude. After today, he would be permanently in the public eye. He didn't believe that his father's old warning about being dissected like a frog was likely to come true now that he was invulnerable, but he was under no illusions about being able to retain any real privacy once his secret was out.
But there was no other way. A year ago, life had seemed bright and full of wonderful possibilities, and he would have thought of some clever scheme to recoup the family fortunes, but now he couldn't even bring himself to care very much. It was time to stop struggling and accept his dismal fate, for his parents' sake.
Suddenly, Clark became aware of an unfamiliar humming noise beneath the tree, followed by the sound of someone clearing his throat. Clark frowned; surely he hadn't been so deep in thought that a stranger could have approached unheard? And what was a stranger doing on Kent land, anyway? Yet it didn't seem worth getting excited about. Perhaps if Clark stayed still and quiet, the man would go on his way without even realising there was anyone in the tree.
"Mr Kent?" came a diffident voice. Clark sighed silently and reluctantly unfolded himself to slide through the branches and land softly in front of the stranger.
The man was elderly, dressed in old-fashioned clothing complete with bowler hat, and carrying a leather briefcase and a furled umbrella — like something out of a Hollywood historical movie, Clark thought uncharitably. The impression was reinforced when the stranger spoke. "My dear boy, I apologise for disturbing you, but it is imperative that I speak with you at once," he said.
Clark's eyebrows rose. "Who are you?" he asked bluntly.
"So sorry, so sorry, forgot to introduce myself!" the little man burbled. "I am Wells, Herbert Wells, a writer and… a traveller, you might say, yes." He seized Clark's hand and pumped it fervently up and down. "And you, of course, are Clark Kent. It is such a great pleasure to meet you! I always enjoy… but no need to speak of that, perhaps." He beamed fondly up at Clark, who hastily retrieved his hand, wondering how best to get rid of this odd little man.
Fortunately, perhaps, Wells didn't wait for a response. "And now, dear boy, we must have a little chat!" he cried enthusiastically. He swept a glance around himself. "I shall sit upon that tree stump." He stepped over to the stump and placed the briefcase and umbrella neatly beside it, then whisked a large silk handkerchief out of his breast pocket, dusting the top of the stump fastidiously before spreading the handkerchief over the mossy surface. Finally, he planted his rear firmly on the impromptu seat, took off his hat, and looked expectantly at Clark.
Clark shook himself out of the trance this remarkable performance had induced. "I don't know what you want to, uh, 'chat' about," he began cautiously, and glanced down at his watch, "but…"
"I know — you have an appointment with a reporter from the National Whisper," Wells interrupted. "However, you have at least an hour before you need to… fly."
Clark's jaw dropped, and he slowly lifted his face to meet Wells's eyes. There was a shrewdness in the little man's gaze that Clark hadn't noticed before. "What…? How…?" Clark stammered.
Wells chuckled in a self-satisfied manner. "Allow me to tell you what I know about you," he suggested, "and perhaps if I get it right you will be willing to heed the warning I came to deliver. Won't you sit down?"
Clark glanced at his surroundings. There was no obvious seat, and the grass would be damp at this hour. For an uneasy moment, he wondered whether the strange Englishman knew that he was capable of sitting on thin air if he chose, but he dismissed the pointless speculation and contented himself with propping his broad shoulders against the tree. "So talk," he said.
"You are the adopted son of Jonathan and Martha Kent," Wells began pompously. "Your parents claimed that you were the illegitimate son of a young relative of theirs, but in actual fact you were a foundling. You were found not in the traditional fashion, in a basket on someone's doorstep," and he snickered at his own wit, "but in a spacecraft in Schuster's Field."
Wells paused and looked at Clark as if expecting congratulation. Clark had turned rather pale and a muscle was jumping in his jaw, but he met Wells's gaze squarely. "Carry on," he said grimly.
Wells's face sobered at Clark's tone. "Your early childhood was normal," he continued in a more subdued fashion, "but as you grew older you began to develop unusual abilities. Strength, speed, strange visual powers, and finally the ability to fly. You and your parents elected to conceal these abilities from the world, for fear of what would happen to you if they became known. You went to school like the average American child, and then obtained a degree in journalism. Your dearest wish was to live an ordinary life with a respectable career as a reporter and perhaps one day a wife and family of your own. But shortly after you graduated, as you were embarking on your travels around the world, your father suffered an accident with… a threshing machine, I believe?"
Clark nodded curtly but didn't speak.
"He was crippled, and you were obliged to return to Smallville to assist your mother with his care and that of the farm. Your abilities allowed you to hold down a job at the Smallville Post as well as your other duties, until early last summer, when you were stricken with a mysterious malady."
Clark shifted uncomfortably, looking away into the distance. He had no idea what had caused his illness, but he was still troubled by lingering psychological symptoms, and it bothered him that this intrusive stranger seemed to know all about it. A minute passed in silence before Clark realised that Wells himself appeared to be suffering from an onslaught of some strong emotion, first blinking rapidly and then fishing fruitlessly in his breast pocket before realising that his handkerchief was already in use.
Wells sniffed apologetically and then resumed his tale with a mournful air. "You were in a comatose state for some days, and after you regained consciousness, you suffered from a deep depression which made it difficult to fulfil your responsibilities." The dry phrases sounded almost like a quotation from an ancient history book. "As a result of that and…" Wells waved a hand vaguely in the air. "… sundry other circumstances, the farm produced no income last year, and your father's medical bills have put your family deep into debt. The banks have refused even to lend you sufficient money to buy seed this year."
Clark had backed up against the tree, his arms folded defensively across his chest, his legs braced as if supporting an almost insupportable weight. "I've heard enough," he snapped.
"Let me finish, dear boy," Wells said gently. "There *is* a point to this story." He paused, but Clark was silent. "You have decided on a last desperate gamble. You will offer the story of your alien origins and remarkable powers to the highest bidder among the tabloid newspapers and sensationalist magazines. You know that you will never again lead an ordinary life, but you hope that your sacrifice will bring enough money to keep your parents in comfort for the rest of their days."
Clark's tortured gaze raked the horizon. "There's no other way," he muttered.
"I think you will agree that I have been sufficiently accurate thus far," Wells said. "Will you allow me to show you what will transpire if you follow your intended course of action?"
"How do you plan to do that?" Clark asked, frowning at him in puzzlement.
Wells picked up his briefcase and opened it to extract a thin tube-shaped object, which he held out to Clark. Clark stepped forward and took it. It was a light roll of opaque white plastic. Clark unrolled it to discover a stiff plastic sheet roughly the size of a tabloid newspaper, but there were no markings on it anywhere.
"Book on," said Wells. Clark gasped as the plastic suddenly glowed and a Microsoft Windows emblem appeared. "National Whisper one," Wells added, and the emblem flickered and was replaced by the image of a newspaper page.
Clark scanned it quickly. It was the front page of the National Whisper, dated two days from today. "Super- Powered Alien Tells All!" screamed the banner headline, above a picture of Clark looking acutely uncomfortable and floating in midair. The text of the article contained the basic story that Clark was planning to tell, an account of his Kryptonian origin and his powers with no information about his real name, the identity of his adopted parents or the whereabouts of his upbringing. There was plenty of juicy speculation about the missing facts, however. Clark sighed; he had expected no better.
"National Whisper two," Wells said. The page dissolved into another, dated a week from now. This page told the full story of his Earthly background — his name, his parents' names, his high-school and university records, and many other details. There was a picture of the farm, taken from the front gate, and another of his mother outside the Smallville grocery store, one arm flung up to shield her face. Clark winced; he hoped to keep those details private at least long enough to buy increased security for his parents.
"Daily Planet one." The display started to fade, then broke up into crazy, whirling patterns of colour. Clark raised an eyebrow and tilted the device towards Wells, who muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath. "Dai- ly Pla-net One," Wells intoned, louder and slower than before. The device paid no attention, and Wells snatched it with a snort and started poking and prodding it.
A minute later he handed it back to Clark, now displaying the requested page. Another front-page article, this time from the Daily Planet and written in a respectable style — by Linda King, Clark noted absently — told how the US government had employed the Krypton Man, as he was being styled, as a sort of glorified policeman cum emergency worker. Clark smiled grimly — that was about the best outcome he was allowing himself to hope for.
"Magazine one." A melange of gossip magazine clippings appeared, most of which contained scurrilous rumours and downright lies about Clark's childhood and adolescence, many of them concentrating on the imagined sexual peccadilloes of the Krypton Man. The few remaining clippings covered much the same ground, this time taking Clark's parents as their subject. Clark shrugged — unpleasant as it might be, this sort of coverage was inevitable — and looked disapprovingly at Wells.
"Daily Planet two." Clark stiffened. A page two article, dated early next month, told how his father had died of a stroke during an altercation with a tabloid photographer who had sneaked into the farmhouse one evening. "Daily Planet three." The Krypton Man had disappeared, as had his mother. "Daily Planet four." The Krypton Man's body had been discovered in a warehouse in Metropolis, surrounded by mysterious green, glowing crystals. His mother's body was nearby. Both had been tortured before their deaths, and a note pinned to Martha Kent's chest proclaimed, "Thus die all traitors to the Earth!"
Clark dropped the plastic device and turned away, sickened to the heart. There was just enough connection to the truth for this fabrication to be plausible. He had recognised some of the names in the slanderous gossip articles as distant acquaintances. And Wayne Irig at the neighbouring farm had dug up a weird green, glowing crystal last summer, while Clark was still recuperating from his illness. Clark hadn't seen it for himself, but Wayne had brought some to the farm to show Jonathan. After he'd sent a sample to a lab for analysis there had been a massive environmental cleanup operation, and government officials from something called Bureau 39 had confiscated all the rocks they could find. The fact that they had insisted on digging up the entire farm had been a major reason for the Kents' lack of income last year. No compensation had yet been paid out to anyone, either — the applications seemed to have vanished into a sea of red tape.
Clark turned back to glare at the annoying little intruder. "You're just making it up," he said flatly. "You can't possibly know what's going to happen." To his shame, his voice wobbled on the last word. Could he even dare to take the risk?
Wells smiled self-importantly. "You will remember that I described myself as a traveller," he said. "I am in fact not a traveller in the geographical sense, but a traveller through time… and between universes."
Clark goggled at him for a moment, then his face darkened and his fists clenched. "You're a raving lunatic," he snarled. "Get off my land before I throw you off."
Wells hunched defensively. "But, my dear Mr Kent," he said, his voice rising to a squeak as Clark loomed over him, "consider the facts at your disposal! Where did I get that e-book? The technology for plastic sheet display won't even exist for several years yet in this universe, and as for the power supply…"
He had a point. Clark drew back, his fists relaxing, and pondered morosely while Wells rabbited on about the breakup of the Microsoft Corporation and something called Utopia. The device could scarcely have been a trick. The little man didn't seem capable of such an invention himself, and if he were he would surely be off somewhere hawking it to a technology company, not pestering innocent Kansas farmers. His story seemed wildly unlikely… yet so was Clark's own.
"How come you know so much about me?" he asked abruptly, cutting short Wells's peroration. "I wouldn't tell those… bottom-feeders everything you said."
"I've read the diary you keep in the Fortress of Solitude, along with the sphere from Krypton," Wells replied, pointing up at the tree. Clark flinched. "They were… or will be… found after your death, and placed in the Krypton Man museum."
Clark turned away again, raking his hands through his hair. It was all too plausible to keep denying it any longer. "Why are you telling me this?" he asked dully. "What does it matter to you if I and my family die tragically?"
"Super…" Wells began, then caught himself. "You have the potential to do tremendous good, Mr Kent. I have been to other universes, alternate realities where Clark Kent's powers and, more importantly, his moral values have changed the world for the better. I hope, by dissuading you from this course of action, to achieve the same for this universe."
"So what are you telling me to do? Let the bank foreclose on the farm, and go… where?"
"Aha!" Wells sounded triumphant, and Clark felt a glimmer of hope. "I have something to give you, which I trust will help you to save the farm and may even…" Wells's face positively glowed with rosy enthusiasm. "… bring you your heart's desire!"
He opened his briefcase again and, with a flourish, produced a sheet of paper and a piece of electronic equipment. Clark took them hesitantly and looked at the diagram on the paper. "Plans for a… a…"
"A Bergstrom-Andersson space-time allomorphic corridor," Wells recited happily. "Yes, indeed!"
"A BEANSTALC?" Clark exclaimed incredulously.
Wells smirked. "Just a little joke," he said, picking the e-book up off the ground. He rolled it up neatly and restored it to his briefcase. "It's an interdimensional gateway. It will take you to another world, one where your powers are sorely needed."
Clark eyed him quizzically, unconvinced. "Wouldn't it be better simply to give me some beans?" he asked. "Then at least I'd have a crop at the end of the summer."
"Even a hill of beans doesn't amount to much in this crazy world," Wells said roguishly, and tittered. He sobered at Clark's irritated stare. "Be careful with the flux facilitator; you won't be able to get another for a very long time. And only you yourself should travel to the other universe, or you may overload the machine." He stood up, put on his hat, and seized Clark's hand once again. "Now I must be off. Such a pleasure to meet you, Mr Kent!"
He turned to pick up his umbrella and then did something Clark couldn't see. There was a click, and a shimmering, humming portal sprang into existence beside him. "Farewell, Mr Kent," he called gaily and stepped through the portal into nothing. A moment later the portal had vanished, leaving Clark staring bemusedly at thin air and clutching the plans for his "Beanstalk".
<<At the top of the beanstalk was a giant castle. The giant's wife let Jack in, and when she heard her husband returning home she hid Jack in the pantry. After dinner, the giant sat counting his gold coins until he fell asleep. Jack slipped out, grabbed the bag of gold and climbed down the beanstalk as fast as his legs could carry him…>>
CHAPTER TWO: The Giant's Castle
Clark gave a final turn to the last screw, and stepped back to inspect his handiwork. The interdimensional gateway resembled nothing so much as a hastily-erected outhouse, and looked bizarrely out of place in the middle of the barn floor. His family had agreed, however, that this was the best place for a possibly dangerous experimental device that needed to be concealed from the neighbours. The last of the farm animals had had to be sold last winter, so little damage would be done if the "Beanstalk" should happen to explode.
Martha had been dismayed when Clark had confessed to her what he'd intended to do before the mysterious stranger had changed his mind. She had actually been speechless for the first time in Clark's experience, a reaction he'd found infinitely more disturbing than the scolding he'd anticipated. By tacit agreement neither of them had mentioned it to Jonathan, but once or twice since then Clark had caught Martha looking at him with a sort of nervous apprehension, as though her ugly duckling had suddenly turned into an eagle. Clark had promised her that he wouldn't do anything rash without consulting the other people who would be affected, but it was difficult to put her mind at ease when none of them could see a way out of their financial difficulties.
Martha and Jonathan had both been extremely sceptical about Clark's strange visitor, but they agreed that there was little to lose by building the machine and seeing if it actually did anything.
Clark had found a few sheets of iron, left over from the construction of the hen house, which were precisely the right dimensions for constructing the outside of the machine; it seemed an unlikely coincidence, and Clark wondered uneasily just how much Wells knew about the farm. Most of the other materials Clark needed had come from Martha's metal scrapheap, which she'd used to supply her art welding a few years previously, when she'd had the leisure for hobbies.
Martha had also allowed him to borrow two of the internal doors from the farmhouse, but had put her foot down when it came to cannibalising her microwave. Fortunately, putting the word out on the town grapevine that Clark needed some electronic components had turned up Mrs Ross's old microwave, which had a broken door but all the parts Clark needed. The only drawback was that Maisie at the Diner had been left with the impression that Clark was building an entry for Robot Wars, and would no doubt be demanding progress reports whenever she saw him.
But the Beanstalk was built at last, and it was time to test it. Clark stepped over to the extension cord lying ready, and plugged the machine in. The electronics began to hum faintly, and as Clark moved back to the door he saw the LED on the status panel turn from red to green. He waited, but nothing else happened.
Clark eyed the machine thoughtfully. From this angle it reminded him of a phone booth, though it was deeper than it was wide and had a second door at the back. If the device worked as advertised, it would form a sort of corridor between universes: the nearer door would open into Clark's own world, and the further door into — where? A ghostly tingle chased its way down Clark's spine. Innocent as the device might look, he wasn't yet ready to step inside and entrust his life to it.
He walked around the back and tried to open the second door, but it wouldn't budge. Clark looked at it thoughtfully, then dropped his glasses down his nose and x- rayed it. He could see through the door into the machine, but he could also see within the door itself the minute wavy distortion of a force field of some kind. The same was true of the sides, top and bottom of the small cubicle. Clark wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or disturbed. Wells's machine was certainly doing *something*!
He walked back around the machine and gently closed the "front" door. Instantly the electronic hum climbed shrilly. Clark stepped back and saw that apart from the front door itself, the whole cubicle had disappeared behind a shimmering silver force field. He tried to x-ray it again, this time to no avail. He gulped, his mouth suddenly dry. Until this moment he hadn't actually believed the machine could possibly work.
Now he had little option but to try it out.
Half an hour later, Clark gave Martha a farewell hug, turned, and stepped through the door into the Beanstalk. He had checked the weather forecast to make sure no thunderstorm was likely to cause a power failure while the machine was on, said goodbye to Jonathan, and promised Martha that he would be gone no more than two hours. Since he had absolutely no idea what to expect on the other side of the gateway, further preparation seemed futile; he might as well just get it over with.
He closed the front door behind him. As before, the machine's hum escalated to a shrill whine, and this time Clark felt a slight sense of vertigo. He tried to x-ray the sides of the cubicle, but there was nothing. He had a sudden mental image of a universe consisting solely of this metal cubicle and himself, and his skin crawled. Hastily, he grasped the handle of the back door and pushed gently.
The door yielded, and the whine dropped back to a hum again. Clark paused a moment to wipe his sweaty palms on his jeans, then pushed the door slowly open and stepped out.
The first thing that met his eyes was a large picture of himself. Clark blinked. No, not a picture — a slightly- larger-than-lifesize cardboard cutout of himself, propped up against the wall. Its face wasn't the one he normally presented to the world, however; this was the face that greeted him in the mirror when he stepped out of the shower, innocent of glasses and with its hair slicked back. It was also grinning broadly, something Clark's own face had almost forgotten how to do.
The rest of the figure was even more disconcerting. Clark's eyes goggled as he took in the details of the gaudy, skin-tight costume and cloak, the only concession to modesty being a pair of briefs worn on the outside of what looked suspiciously like tights. As evidence that he was indeed in a different universe, this was pretty convincing. And on the face of it, he and his counterpart in this universe weren't going to have much in common.
Tearing his eyes from the image with some difficulty, Clark inspected the rest of the room. It was an office, furnished in an opulent style: deep pile carpet, a small but intricately-carved mahogany desk, and what looked like genuine Old Masters on the walls. There was a desk-top computer with an enormous flat-screen monitor in the corner, flanked by an array of electronic gadgets only some of which were familiar to Clark; and not one, but two large banks of filing cabinets.
Judging by the view from the window, this room seemed to be part of a high-rise building in some large American city. Clark used his x-ray vision to ensure that the rest of the apartment was unoccupied, then carefully propped the Beanstalk door open with an ornate pewter paperweight before setting out to explore his surroundings.
It didn't take long. The apartment was small, though furnished throughout with the same disregard for expense. All the gadgets seemed to be the very latest technology; the television had both satellite and cable feeds, the computer had a high-tech and no doubt extremely fast Internet connection, and the apartment even had its own backup power supply. Only the living room and the office, however, showed any signs of regular use.
Curiously, there was no external door, nor any evidence that one had existed and been bricked up; the only access was via an elevator in the living room. Scanning the elevator shaft, Clark found that the only other doors were a concealed entrance in the penthouse apartment a few floors up, and a third set in the basement of the building. It seemed likely that the only people aware of the existence of this bolthole, besides those who had built it, were the occupants of the penthouse suite.
Clark found himself gripped by a heady mix of curiosity and excitement. It was so long since he had felt either emotion that it took him some time to identify them. He was itching to know who used this secret apartment, and for what — surely nefarious — purposes. He sincerely hoped it wasn't this universe's Clark Kent.
The logical place to start was Mr X's office. Clark scanned the desk quickly, but it contained nothing of note. He eyed the computer briefly, but any information on there might well be encrypted — and besides, it might alert someone to his presence by connecting to some external network. He turned his attention to the filing cabinets.
The nearer set was unlocked, and Clark opened a drawer at random. The files were mostly labelled with people's names, none of them familiar to Clark. Where to begin? On impulse, Clark opened the drawer marked K. He took out the file labelled "Clark Kent" and began to read.
A minute later he finished the last page and put the file down to digest what he had learnt. The Clark Kent of this world seemed to have had an early history identical to his own in every respect; even the photograph that accompanied his bio looked almost exactly like Clark himself. But the Jonathan of this world had never been crippled, and Clark's counterpart had travelled the world for several years before moving to Metropolis, New Troy, and becoming an investigative journalist for the Daily Planet, around the time Clark himself had fallen ill. The bio ended there, but there was a thick sheaf of newspaper clippings from the Planet, some with the byline of Clark Kent, but many more with a shared byline of Lane and Kent.
Clark felt a painful pang of envy. Lois Lane had been a brilliant reporter in his own world, and he had often admired her work and wished that he could meet her. She had vanished from circulation around the time of his illness, though, and he had never bothered to find out what had happened to her.
Clark turned his attention back to his investigation, and the Kent of this universe. He found it easier to think of his counterpart as that; thinking of him as "Clark" gave him a vaguely queasy feeling.
Kent had reported on a wide variety of topics — even a motor show, Clark noted wryly — but a large proportion of the articles in the file had concerned the activities of someone identified only as "Superman": an alien being with remarkable powers, who seemed to spend most of his time performing dazzling rescues, fighting crime and mopping up after natural or man-made disasters. The occasional photographs which accompanied the articles showed the same costume and hairstyle Clark had already seen on the cardboard cutout figure. There was not the slightest hint that Superman was the same person as the author of the articles.
Clark looked thoughtfully at the cardboard image still beaming inanely across the room. He had acquired a new respect for his counterpart, who seemed to have solved the puzzle which, years ago, had presented the only real cloud on Clark's horizon: how to use his extraordinary abilities for good and still be able to live an ordinary life.
How would Kent have addressed the problems that now beset Clark? Perhaps if he could find Kent he could ask him, and the two of them could come up with a plan together.
What was puzzling Clark, though, was why Mr X, a wealthy and presumably crooked individual, would have bothered to set up and maintain a file on Kent, if he didn't know that Kent was Superman. The file itself contained no hint of anything unusual. Perhaps the answer lay in Kent's associates? Clark replaced Kent's file in the cabinet and opened the next drawer down. As he had half expected, there was a file labelled Lois Lane. Clark sat down and resumed reading.
But Ms Lane's file, however interesting in other respects, shed no light on the puzzle. Apart from the divorce of her parents and the subsequent alcoholism of her mother, she seemed to have had an unremarkable childhood. Her academic record was brilliant, and she had won several Kerth awards for investigative journalism at an unusually young age, just like her counterpart in Clark's own universe.
Clark picked up the photo that came next, and felt another sharp pang of envy for his counterpart. The picture was unposed, evidently taken with a long lens at a news conference; but the pencil with which Ms Lane was absent- mindedly tapping her cheek, and the slight frown as she gazed intently out of shot, didn't obscure her natural beauty. Clark replaced the photo slowly, feeling slightly stunned. He had always thought of Ms Lane as a brilliant, high-powered journalist; it had never occurred to him that she might also be an extremely attractive woman.
The sheaf of newspaper clippings with her byline contained many more articles on Superman than had Kent's. She seemed to have obtained the inside scoop on Superman's debut appearance, when he had foiled an attempt to sabotage the launch of the Prometheus Space Station's habitation module. In Clark's own universe, the habitation module had exploded on takeoff and the Prometheus project had been scrapped, its place taken by the privately-funded Space Station Luthor. Clark had been comatose at the time; he wondered idly now whether he would have stood by while the habitation module had gone up in flames, or whether he would have sacrificed his privacy to save it. It was a question he wasn't sure he could answer.
Lois Lane had also obtained the first personal interview with Superman — though it could scarcely claim to be an in- depth interview. Reading between the lines, Clark had a shrewd idea that Ms Lane had a sizable crush on the hero; and it was quite clear that she had absolutely no idea her working partner moonlighted in tights. Incredibly, Kent's simple disguise seemed to be effective even with the people he worked with every day — people professionally trained in the art of detecting anomaly and subterfuge. Clark shook his head in amazement.
The wad of articles came to an abrupt end about six weeks previously. The only other information in the file was an extraordinarily detailed description of Ms Lane's apartment — floor plan, decorations, furnishings and personal possessions — and a slim sheaf of clippings about Ms Lane herself. Many of them dealt with her society appearances with, and subsequent engagement to, Lex Luthor of Luthor Enterprises; but one of them explained the sudden cessation of newspaper articles. Respected print journalist Lois Lane, noted the TV Guide prosaically, was moving into television after the destruction of the Daily Planet, and taking up a position in LNN. Clark gasped, the words blurring before his eyes. The Daily Planet, destroyed? Even in another universe, that came as a shock.
Clark looked pensively at the photograph accompanying one of the engagement articles. Lois Lane was smiling brilliantly into the camera; behind her, Lex Luthor looked every inch the successful, debonair businessman, one hand resting possessively on her shoulder. Even as Clark felt his breath shorten with the effect of her smile, he reflected that working with Lois Lane didn't seem to have gone as well for Kent as he, Clark, had initially imagined. The loss of her employer — and, it seemed, her partner — didn't seem even to have broken her stride. Perhaps her character didn't match up to her appearance; she might be ambitious and hard, a gold-digger who had no time to spare for a mere reporter.
Clark closed Lois Lane's file and returned it to the cabinet, then scanned the drawer for the file on Lex Luthor.
It wasn't there.
Clark closed the drawer gently, whistling softly and thoughtfully between his teeth. His next target, the S drawer, yielded a substantial file on Superman.
Here, in addition to the Daily Planet articles Clark had already seen, were dozens from other newspapers and magazines. Some of them were the sort of scurrilous rubbish Clark had seen in Wells's "e-book" collection, only without the references to the Kent family. There was little that was new to Clark, besides a few reports on something called the Superman Foundation, a trust organisation set up by Superman to administer copyrights and trademarks in his name and channel the proceeds to charity. Clark's respect for his counterpart rose another notch.
The last few articles, however, were quite different. "WHERE IS SUPERMAN?" trumpeted the Metropolis Star's banner headline. "Superman — fly-by-night?" sneered the Dirt Digger. Superman hadn't been seen in over a week; a highway pileup, an oil spill, even a hospital fire had gone unattended. Clark couldn't help but notice that Superman's disappearance coincided with the date set for Lois Lane's wedding. Had he cherished romantic feelings towards his partner after all? Had her marriage driven him out of Metropolis to hide from his failures and obligations in some remote part of the globe? Or was Clark simply reading far too much into a mere coincidence? Shrugging, Clark laid the articles aside.
Next came a series of reports from private investigators into Superman's background, the operation of the Superman Foundation, and several of the more plausible allegations of immoral or criminal behaviour on Superman's part from the tabloid press. The reports were unanimous in finding nothing whatsoever out of place: Superman was squeaky clean. Mr X must have found that extremely frustrating, Clark reflected with a grim smile.
The last item in the file was a single folded sheet of expensive cream notepaper; the same type and size that Clark had noticed in Mr X's desk drawer. With a dim sense of foreboding, Clark picked up the sheet and unfolded it. Written on it in bold black ink were four words.
Superman is Clark Kent.
Half an hour later, Clark restored the last file to its drawer and straightened with a sigh. He had read through everything in this set of filing cabinets, and still had no real handle on Mr X. The files contained personal details, both public and private, on a myriad of people: businessmen, scientists, politicians, lawyers, military personnel… people from all walks of life, from all parts of America and throughout the world. If there was the merest hint of a skeleton in anyone's closet it had been thoroughly investigated, by one of a dozen different agencies. A few people came out looking comparatively clean — Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet, was one — but the vast majority of the files contained ample amounts of what would doubtless be useful blackmail material, if one were so inclined. And Clark strongly suspected that Mr X was so inclined.
What he hadn't found, though, was any evidence linking the subjects of the files to a central organisation or person. A high proportion of the subjects lived and worked in Metropolis, but otherwise there was no readily apparent pattern to them.
Something else was also conspicuously absent, however. Lex Luthor and his various business concerns were, inevitably, mentioned in many of the files, but there was no hint of the slightest shady dealing in connection with any of them. Either the man and everything he touched were preternaturally clean and above-board… or the information in the files had been very carefully selected.
It was time to look elsewhere.
Clark crossed to the second set of filing cabinets and tried a couple of drawers, but this time they were locked. With a resigned nod, he pulled down his glasses and scanned the walls of the office, quickly finding what he expected: the safe. It was concealed behind an oil painting, but it took Clark only a moment to locate the catch which allowed the painting to swing to one side, and another minute or so with his super-hearing tuned in to pick the combination lock.
The safe held an impressive array of hard-to-trace valuables, from uncut diamonds to wads of banknotes to anonymous gold jewellery, but Clark had eyes for only two of the items inside: a large bunch of keys, and a small globe marked with the continents and oceans of Earth.
The Kryptonian orb.
Clark had no desire to pick it up; he knew the messages his own orb contained by heart, and he had no time to waste in checking whether this orb was identical to his. But the fact that Mr X — Luthor? — had the orb in his possession went a long way to explaining how he knew Superman's secret identity. What use had he made of the information?
Clark picked up the keys and returned to the second set of filing cabinets. The third key he tried fitted the lock; but even as he started to turn it, some strange instinct held him back. It was too easy.
Clark knew, beyond any shadow of doubt, that these files held the key to Mr X's operations. Mr X was nothing if not careful and methodical. His secrets would be protected by more than a mere lock and key.
Clark lowered his glasses once again, and x-rayed the cabinets. What he saw made his blood run cold. The cabinets were booby-trapped with incendiary devices and fitted with ventilation ducts at the back to ensure that a fire, once started, wouldn't go out for lack of oxygen. If the key was turned while the devices were armed — as they were now — the contents of the cabinets would be useless ash in very short order… and if a drawer was opened the entire office would also be in flames, Clark estimated.
Trembling slightly at the narrowness of his escape, Clark traced the wiring from the booby trap to the disarming switches — one under the desk, one behind a painting on the far side of the room — and made sure the circuit was safe. Then he turned the key, opened a couple of drawers, and used his heat vision to sever the critical connections inside so that the incendiaries were permanently disabled. If the police ever swooped on this office, Mr X was going to be disappointed by the failure of his little insurance policy.
Finally, Clark was free to concentrate on finding out what Mr X didn't want the world to know.
Once again, he started with K. This time, however, the files were labelled with what seemed to be project names, not people. The first file in the drawer was marked "Series K". His curiosity piqued, Clark took it out and began to read.
Moments later, he collapsed into a chair, his head spinning. Most of his questions had been answered in one fell swoop… and the answers sickened him to the core.
Lex Luthor, undoubtedly the mysterious Mr X, had obtained a sample of "kryptonite", the same glowing green mineral Wayne Irig had discovered in Clark's universe. The file cheerfully described how Luthor and an aide, Mrs Cox, had double-crossed and killed the men who had offered it for sale. It went on to relate how Mrs Cox had tested the mineral on Superman, and then how Luthor, with the assistance of Mrs Cox and another aide, Nigel St John, had trapped and killed Superman.
Clark's counterpart wasn't in hiding. He was dead.
Through the nausea and confusion clouding his mind, Clark slowly became aware of three things.
Firstly, he was in grave danger in this world. He didn't for a moment imagine that Luthor had disposed of the kryptonite after the success of his nefarious plan, and if he saw Clark he was certain to try to use it on him, too.
Secondly, although Clark had never met his counterpart, had never even heard of him before today, he felt a burning rage at his fate. Nothing he could do could bring Kent back, but he could hope to avenge him. Bringing down the man who had so lightly and callously brushed Kent aside, swatted him out of existence like a troublesome fly, would be a pleasure. Then, too, Kent had loving parents who were no doubt bewildered by his absence and fearful for his safety; they deserved to know what had become of their son.
And thirdly… if the Luthor of this world was a ruthless killer, Clark had a shrewd suspicion that the Lex Luthor in his own universe would prove to be no better. If he could gather enough evidence here about crimes that had taken place in both universes, he would be able to rid his own world of a very evil man.
Grimly, Clark switched the fax machine to "copy" and began his research in earnest.
<<Jack slipped into the castle and hid in the pantry. This time, after dinner, the giant took out a hen and put it on the table. After a few minutes, the hen cackled and laid a golden egg. Jack waited till the giant had fallen asleep, then sneaked out, seized the hen and ran back to the beanstalk. The hen's cackling woke the giant, but by then Jack was far away…>>
CHAPTER THREE: Golden Eggs
"Luthor's Darkest Hour," proclaimed the Daily Planet's banner headline, and underneath in smaller type, "Billionaire philanthropist arrested on felony charges." The by-line was in the name of Clark Kent.
Clark tossed the paper down with a tired sigh. It had been a hectic two weeks. He had started by persuading his own universe's Perry White, on the strength of a few of the photocopied documents, to lend him the use of the Planet facilities and a young researcher for an in-depth investigation of Luthor and his business empire. With Clark's intimate knowledge of what the alternate-universe Luthor had been up to and Jimmy's impressive hacking abilities, they had struck paydirt very quickly. There were some small differences between the two Luthors' operations, but there was enough overlap to ensure that this Luthor, at least, would be enjoying the State's hospitality for a long time to come.
Once they had amassed enough circumstantial evidence and witness statements to form the basis of a solid case, Clark had gone to the police. Luthor seemed to have half the MPD in his pocket, but Clark had decided to approach one Inspector William Henderson, who'd had a clean record in the alternate Luthor's files, and the gamble had paid off. Less than forty-eight hours later, Luthor and his lieutenants were in custody, and Clark had the exclusive on everything that wasn't sub judice.
Clark had made a night flight, dressed in dark clothing, to x-ray Lex Towers and check that the secret apartment also existed in this universe; then he'd turned the details over to Henderson. The police had had some difficulty disarming Luthor's booby trap, and Clark had itched to be able to help them, but Superman didn't exist in this universe.
Martha and Jonathan had been astounded by Clark's tale of his counterpart's devious disguise, and Martha had immediately offered to create a similar Suit for Clark, but something held him back. For one thing, he knew that as soon as he revealed himself he would have to deal with Bureau 39 and the kryptonite threat. Forewarned was forearmed… yet Clark wanted to have some idea, some plan for how to proceed, before he set it all in motion.
But it went deeper than that. In the other universe Clark had felt bold, confident, assured of success. Back in his own world, that feeling was fading fast; the other world seemed like a dream, a land of myth that didn't exist in the cold light of day.
He was almost scared to use the gateway device again, in case it all turned out to be his imagination. He knew he ought to go back, to do something about the other Luthor and the other Clark Kent… but he felt a kind of panic at the idea. It wasn't just physical fear of Luthor and his kryptonite; it was more of a fear that he wouldn't be able to match up to the Superman image. He might fail disastrously, might expose Kent and his parents…
It was easier just to ignore the problems in the other universe, ignore the possibility of becoming Superman here at home, and proceed as normal. Or nearly normal, given his trips to Metropolis and his work on bringing Luthor to justice.
Perry White had been impressed with the articles he had written, as well as with his investigative abilities, and had offered him a place as a permanent staffer. When Clark had declined, explaining that he had to run the farm for his parents, Perry had assured him the offer would be open if he ever changed his mind. Clark was torn, but now that he'd earned a tidy lump sum with his exclusives, it was time to plough it back into the farm and try to evade the bank's clutches for another year. He was already late with the spring planting.
The one regret he had about his sojourn at the Planet was that he hadn't been able to find the Lois Lane of his own world… but it seemed only too likely that she was dead. Clark had asked after her at the Planet, and it seemed she had simply disappeared without trace while investigating the sabotage of the Messenger shuttle. The night she had disappeared there had been an explosion in a shuttle hangar at EPRAD, followed by a second explosion which had wrecked a helicopter and killed Dr Antoinette Baines, the scientist until now believed to be behind the sabotage of the Messenger and the Prometheus habitation module. Two of the long list of charges now facing Luthor were complicity in the sabotage, and the murder of Dr Baines by means of a bomb planted in the helicopter.
It was thought that Lois Lane might have been killed by the first explosion, though it had been impossible to identify her positively. Another mark on Luthor's balance sheet, Clark thought grimly.
Jimmy had known her fairly well, and had scoffed at the image Clark had built up of a hardened gold-digger. True, "Mad Dog Lane" had been dedicated to her career to the point of obsession, but she had been a brilliant journalist — and a real looker, Jimmy had added nostalgically. Clark wished he'd been able to meet her. If he'd been near Metropolis then… but, coincidentally, the night she'd disappeared was the same night he'd fallen ill, so he probably wouldn't have been any use.
The sound he'd been waiting for finally reached Clark's ears: Martha's car, returning to the farmhouse. Clark rose and went out to meet his parents.
As he had expected, Jonathan was exhausted from the long trip to the hospital, his heartbeat loud and erratic. Clark matter-of-factly set about helping him out of the car and into his wheelchair, and Jonathan, who normally insisted on doing everything possible for himself, quietly let him get on with it.
When Clark came downstairs after putting Jonathan to bed, he was startled to find Martha sitting silently on the couch in the living room, twisting a handkerchief between her hands. She always seemed full of vigour, was always bustling about doing something. Tonight she looked tired and frail, and Clark realised with a shock how the last few years had worn her down.
He sat down beside her and took her hand, and for a while they sat silently together. It was only when Martha raised the handkerchief to her face that Clark realised she was crying.
He put a comforting arm around her shoulders, feeling the rigid tension in her frame. "Is it Dad?" he asked. "Was there bad news at the hospital?"
She nodded and blew her nose. When she spoke, her voice sounded old. "The pain's been getting worse for some time. He never talks about it, but I can tell…"
"I know," Clark said quietly. "I can hear him sometimes at night, lying awake and trying not to groan."
"Dr Martin said he has osteoarthritis. The bone is growing all wrong over the injury. There's not much they can do, except give him painkillers and extra physiotherapy…"
Clark winced. He knew how the physiotherapy took it out of Jonathan.
"… and if it keeps growing, it'll start obstructing the artery." Martha paused and swallowed, then said bravely, "And then they'll have to amputate the leg."
"Oh, Mom…" Clark sat silently digesting the implications. He knew his father still hoped against hope to be independent again one day, to be able to look after himself and Martha, and set Clark free to follow his own road. This would crush his hopes.
"Why can't they do a joint replacement?" he asked after a while.
"I didn't follow that bit," Martha admitted. Her voice was stronger; Clark knew she was drawing strength from his supportive presence and his calm response to the news. "It was something to do with the angle of the bone and the position of the artery. He said they just don't have alloys strong enough."
"Alloys?" Clark echoed. That sounded so familiar… He rose to his feet and began to pace with mounting excitement. Did he dare raise his mother's hopes? But he needed to work out what to do. "Mom, in the other universe — in the files, there was stuff on what Dr Samuel Lane was working on for Luthor. He was dealing with sports injuries, and he'd done revolutionary work on joint replacements, including new alloys." His voice was shaking, and he cleared his throat. "If I could get those papers…"
Martha was looking at him with dawning hope. "What about going to Dr Lane in this universe?"
He shook his head. "He committed suicide soon after his daughter disappeared — you know, Lois Lane? He burnt his lab, all his notes, everything. I think he must have known Luthor was responsible for Lois's death. But in the other universe, Luthor had all his notes — there were even patent applications. If I can bring them back, I'm sure we can find a doctor who can use them. And it won't just be Dad we can help, either — there must be thousands of people who will benefit!"
Martha was nodding. "But, Clark — be careful!"
"I will, Mom." He bent and kissed his mother's forehead, then turned and headed for the barn.
As he switched the Beanstalk on and waited for it to warm up, Clark wondered if the device would be okay. He had used almost a full ream of paper photocopying Luthor's dirty secrets on his last trip, and the flux facilitator had heated up and keened unpleasantly on his return journey. To his relief, it seemed normal again this time.
He entered quickly and closed the near door, then opened the far door a crack. The noise from the device dropped to a hum, and Clark x-rayed the door to check what was happening on the far side. The office looked exactly as he had left it, weeks before: lit by the late afternoon sun, and mercifully empty. It seemed as though his visit had passed undetected.
He stepped out into the room, and felt his spirits rise. The same excitement and confidence he had felt on his last trip gripped him again.
As he crossed the floor towards the filing cabinet, he suddenly caught an unexpected sound and froze. He could hear voices in the living room. After a moment, when they came no closer, he dropped his glasses for a quick scan through the office wall. What he saw made him flush beet red and hastily push his glasses up again. He had no difficulty recognising Luthor and Mrs Cox from the last time he had seen their counterparts in his own universe, being led away in handcuffs; but this time they were alone, and in a distinctly compromising position.
Carefully screening out the voices from the other room, for he had no wish to eavesdrop on such a scene, Clark frowned in puzzlement. Luthor had only been married for a few weeks. It was surprising that he was in Metropolis at all, instead of on some extravagant extended honeymoon, and almost incredible that he was already — or still, Clark thought sourly — carrying on an affair with his assistant.
Clark opened the filing cabinet silently and extracted Dr Lane's file. He couldn't very well copy the papers while Luthor was just next door, but he might as well get them ready. And if it seemed Luthor would discover him, he could just leave with the originals and hope to return them at a later date.
A buzzer sounded in the other room, then after a pause Clark heard Mrs Cox's raised voice. "You don't have to answer it, Lex!"
"It's Nigel, my dear," came the smooth reply. "He wouldn't disturb us lightly." Footsteps crossed the room, and Luthor spoke again, just on the other side of the wall from Clark. "Yes?"
Nigel St John's plummy British accents sounded from the intercom. "Miss Lane is awake again, sir, and lucid. I thought you would like to know."
"Thank you, Nigel," Luthor said coolly. "Is she asking for me?"
"Uh…" St John seemed a little flustered by the question, but he recovered quickly and his voice became expressionless once again. "She is asking for her partner, sir — Mr Kent."
"Ah." A hint of steel entered Luthor's voice. "How… faithless of the future Mrs Luthor, eh, Nigel? We shall have to rid her of this unseemly affection for the late, lamented Mr Kent."
"As you say, sir," St John said blandly.
There was a pause as Luthor crossed the room again and, by the sound of it, started to pick up his discarded clothing. "Duty calls, my dear," he said suavely. "We'll continue this later. Do hurry — it's so important for Lois's devoted fiance to be at her side, don't you think?"
Clark risked another peek into the adjoining room and glimpsed Mrs Cox's thunderous face as she stood with her back to Luthor, adjusting her skirt. Her expression was neutral again, however, by the time she turned to accompany him to the elevator. "Of course, Lex," she replied.
Clark stood stock-still, listening to the fading hum of the elevator, his mind reeling. Lois wasn't married to Luthor yet — there was still time to let her know just what sort of man her fiance was, and what diabolical crimes he had committed! He wanted to fly straight up to the penthouse, seize Lois and escape with her before Luthor could put his filthy hands on her again.
But what could he say to her? "I'm Superman, and Luthor killed Clark"? He didn't have a Suit. "I'm Clark, but not your Clark, and Luthor killed your Clark, who was Superman, by the way"? That would go down a treat. If Kent hadn't managed to convince her to stay away from Luthor — and Clark knew, from Luthor's secret files, that Superman had had no illusions about Luthor's virtue — then Lois would scarcely believe Clark's word, whether or not she accepted that he was not her partner.
As he hesitated, Clark saw the elevator stop in the penthouse, and Luthor exit quickly and go straight to what looked like a guest bedroom, converted to a sickroom. The thin, pale woman propped up in the bed was scarcely recognisable as Lois Lane; but as Luthor entered, exclaiming, "Lois, my darling!" she held out her arms to him.
"Oh, Lex!" Clark heard her sigh as she embraced Luthor warmly.
Clark's vision slowly cleared, and he found himself staring fixedly at the file in his hands. It was starting to smoulder slightly. He blew on it hastily, to reverse the effects of his gaze. If this file went up in smoke, his father would be condemned to spend the rest of his life as a cripple.
If Clark went charging upstairs, and Lois scoffed at him, and Luthor brought out the kryptonite… Jonathan would stay crippled, and penniless to boot.
With a heavy heart, and without another look at the tender reunion going on upstairs, Clark set about copying the contents of the file.
Perhaps, when he got back home, he would be able to work out what to do about Lois.
<<This time the giant took out a magic harp, which began to play music by itself. The music was so sweet that it lifted the heart of anyone who heard it. Once again Jack waited until the giant had been lulled to sleep, then stole out of his hiding place and seized the harp. But the harp cried out, "Master! A thief is stealing me!" The giant awoke and pursued Jack all the way to the beanstalk…>>
CHAPTER FOUR: The Magic Harp
"What about money?" Martha asked. "Will you have enough cash?"
Clark grimaced and took out his wallet. "I doubt they'll have exactly the same bills," he pointed out, "and the last thing I want is to be arrested for passing counterfeit notes." He emptied the wallet onto the table and looked up into Martha's worried blue eyes. "Thank goodness I don't need to eat," he said, quirking a smile.
Martha's lip trembled, and she looked away. "What are you going to do when you get there?" she asked.
Clark sighed. "I don't really know, Mom," he admitted. "I have to find Lois and convince her that Luthor is evil, and stop her marrying him. That's the main thing."
"But, if she really loves him, and he loves her…" Martha's voice trailed off.
Clark was shaking his head vehemently. "Mom, he killed her Clark, and he's killed dozens of other people. Besides… you didn't hear the way he talked about her. As if she were an animal, to be trained — or a toy, to be used and thrown away!"
"But what if you can't get to her, or can't convince her?" Martha was all but wringing her hands.
"I think… I'll find a way." Clark's voice grew reflective. "I feel so different when I'm there, Mom — happy, confident, certain about what I need to do — almost like a different person. I can't really explain it. It's as if, when I got sick last year, I lost a part of myself that I need… and in that universe, I have it back again."
Martha nodded. "Just come back to us, son," she begged.
"You know I will if there's any way," he assured her. "And if I don't… Dad will be on his own two feet again after the operation, and I've signed a power of attorney so you can use the income from the patent if you need to. And you know what to do with the Beanstalk…"
"Open the door and switch it off once you're gone, and switch it on and close the door at midnight every night, Metropolis time," she recited. "I know, Clark."
"I love you, Mom." He hugged her fiercely for a few seconds, then stepped away. "Tell Dad I love him, too. I'd better go."
As soon as he stepped out into what he had come to think of as Luthor's lair, Clark felt the familiar rush of confidence and excitement sweep over him. He knew he was doing the right thing.
He scanned the living room, but this time it was deserted. He quickly moved to the unlocked set of filing cabinets and extracted the very last page from Superman's file. If this was Luthor's own writing, as he suspected, it might help him convince Lois he was telling the truth.
Finally he turned back to the Beanstalk, the battered farmhouse kitchen door looking familiar and yet bizarrely out of place set into the wall of Luthor's office. He grasped the handle and, drawing a deep breath, closed the door with a decisive click. Once Martha opened the far door again this door would disappear, covering his tracks. And cutting off his retreat.
He turned away, opening the office door to step out into the living room. At once, an unfamiliar sight caught his eye.
On the far side of the room, between the living room and the bedroom, a brand new door had been installed. A stout wooden door. And it was closed.
Clark crossed the room quietly and tried the handle — locked. Stepping back, he pulled down his glasses to x-ray the door.
Not entirely to his surprise, he found himself looking at Lois Lane. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking around speculatively with a determined glint in her eye. She was still thin and pale, but no longer the waif who had greeted Luthor a few days before. Looking at her, Clark could believe that this woman was the brilliant, dedicated journalist that people talked about.
He heaved a deep, thankful sigh. It was going to be easy after all.
He knocked softly on the door, and her head whipped around. She glanced down at her decorous cotton nightie, then stood up, grabbed a robe from the back of a nearby chair and tugged it on. Finally she seized a vase from the dressing table, dumping the flowers unceremoniously on the carpet, and hefted it over her shoulder.
"Who is it?" she asked in a feeble voice belied by her actions and her intent expression.
An appreciative grin was spreading over Clark's face. By the look of it, he wasn't even going to have to sweet-talk Lois into leaving — she didn't exactly seem to be on the best of terms with whoever she was expecting.
"Lois, open the door," he said. "I've come to get you out of here."
"Clark!" The vase crashed unheeded to the floor as Lois launched herself headlong at the door. "Oh, Clark — I knew you'd come back!" She was sobbing — whether with tears or laughter, Clark couldn't tell.
"Just open the door, Lois," he said urgently.
"I can't — they've locked me in!" came the reply. "When I told Lex I wouldn't marry him, he said I was delusional, and they've moved me here and locked me up till I change my mind. There isn't even a nail file in the bathroom to pick the lock with!"
"Stand back, then," Clark said authoritatively. "I'll break it down."
He saw her eyebrows rise at his tone, but she moved back out of the way even as she protested, "But, Clark, it's a really strong door — you'll never manage!"
He smiled grimly and set his shoulder to the door. One quick shove, a hint of super-strength, and the door crashed back on its hinges.
"Clark!" There was a squeal, then a small tornado struck Clark on the chest and he found himself clutching an armful of soft, warm human female. For a timeless instant he forgot how to breathe, floating in a blissful realm where only he and Lois existed. Then he heard the words she was frantically murmuring.
"Oh, Clark… I dreamed you were dead, and I never told you how much I love you… I wouldn't listen when you said you loved me, and I said I didn't feel like that about you, but I do, oh Clark, I do love you, and I never want to see Lex again! Please take me away from here!"
Clark's heart broke.
"I love you too, Lois," he said numbly. It was true: one glimpse of this wonderful woman and he'd fallen passionately, irrevocably in love.
But it was also what his counterpart would have said. Clark knew with absolute certainty that Kent had felt the same way about this woman. Explanations would have to wait; Lois was going to be devastated when she found out what had happened to Kent. He needed to get her away from here, away from Luthor, before he told her.
At his words, her arms had snaked up around his neck and she had raised her face to his. For a split second he was tempted; but if he ever kissed this woman it would be as himself, not while he was standing in a dead man's shoes.
"What happened to you?" he asked, stalling for time. "I thought you were getting married three weeks ago."
Her face clouded over. "I got sick right before the wedding," she said. "I just passed out — the doctors don't know why. I was unconscious for a week…" She bit her lip. "I had the most awful dreams, about you being dead, and I didn't want to live… You don't know what it means to me, to see you again!"
He gazed at her dumbly, his heart thudding. She had passed out at about the same time that Kent had died.
Clark himself had passed out at about the same time that his own Lois had died.
It couldn't be a coincidence.
He became aware that a puzzled frown was starting to pucker her forehead. He reached up and gently disengaged her arms from around his neck. "We need to get out of here," he said softly, regretfully.
Her eyes narrowed. "Are you all right?" she asked. "You seem… different, somehow." Her eyes flicked to his hair, which he knew was somewhat longer than Kent's; then to his glasses, which were a slightly different style.
Clark cursed inwardly. This woman was just too observant for her own good. "There's no time to talk now," he said. "We need to go."
"Suits me," she said obligingly. "Where are we going?"
He hesitated, considering. "To Smallville, first of all," he said.
"Won't that be the first place Lex looks for us?"
His mouth twisted bitterly. "Probably not," he said, "and we'll make sure we're gone by the time he looks there. All of us," he added under his breath. He looked at her searchingly. "Lois, do you trust me completely?"
A smile lit up her face, stopping his heart for a second. "Yes, I do," she said without a moment's hesitation.
He nodded sombrely. "Then do exactly what I say. To get out of here, we're going to have to fly."
"You mean… with Superman?" she asked.
"No." His voice was curt, but he couldn't help it. "Come."
He grasped her hand and turned towards the living room. Instantly, he spotted another alteration — the security camera mounted on the far wall, pointing straight at the bedroom door. "Hurry!" he snapped.
But even as they emerged from the bedroom, the elevator doors slid open. Lex Luthor stood there, smiling coldly, a lit cigar in one hand. The automatic pistol in the other was pointing directly at Lois.
"Fee, fie, fo, fum," Luthor recited, strolling forward out of the elevator, "I smell the blood of S…" His gaze slid from Clark to Lois. "… someone I wasn't expecting," he concluded, his attention returning to Clark. "Would you care to explain what you're doing with my fiancee?"
"Lois has decided to leave," Clark said. "I came to help her pack." He didn't see any immediate cause to fear Luthor; the fact that the pistol was pointing at Lois meant that it couldn't hurt him, and there was no way he was going to let a bullet reach her.
"Lex, you can't keep me here against my will," Lois said with transparent bravado. "Clark, let's just go."
"Oh, I don't think you'll be going anywhere just yet," Luthor said, waving the pistol casually. Lois flinched, and his smile widened to something akin to a snarl. "And that isn't Clark."
"Of course it's Clark," Lois snapped. "Do you think I don't know my own partner?"
The silence lengthened as the two men eyed each other.
"If he isn't Clark, who is he?" Lois asked angrily, a hint of doubt creeping into her voice.
"I've no idea," Luthor admitted. "Why don't we ask him? Who are you?"
"My name is Clark Kent," Clark said reluctantly. "But I'm not Lois's partner."
Luthor's eyebrows climbed steeply. "How delightful," he purred. "Is everyone from Krypton called Clark Kent?"
Clark heard a hiss of indrawn breath beside him, and Luthor laughed. "Oh, poor naive Lois," he mocked. "You never did work out that your partner was Superman, did you?"
Lois's fingers, still clutching Clark's, were cold and trembling. "How come you know so much about it?" she said.
"Because, my dear, I killed your partner with my own fair hands," Luthor said silkily. "Using kryptonite. And now that you know that, I'm going to have to kill you, too." He raised the gun and loosed off half a dozen shots in Lois's direction.
Clark dropped Lois's hand and sprang into action. It was no problem picking all the bullets from the air before they got anywhere near Lois. As he returned to normal speed, he crushed them into a ball and tossed it aside contemptuously. He looked at Lois for an instant, his heart contracting painfully as he took in her ashen face; then he whirled to face Luthor again. "You're going to have to try harder than that," he said.
But there was no longer anyone in front of the elevator doors. Even as Clark located Luthor in front of a display case, he felt a sharp stab of agony wrench through his vitals. He let out an involuntary moan and dropped to one knee, and heard Luthor laugh triumphantly as he lifted a lump of glowing green rock out of a metal chest.
"I think this will do the job," Luthor gloated, watching him trying to struggle back to his feet. "In a few moments you'll have no powers left, and I'll have the pleasure of putting a bullet through *you*. I never dreamed life could be so kind… I get to kill Superman twice over!"
Clark turned his head painfully. "Lois," he croaked, "the office! Run!"
Lois started, and shook off her horrified stupor. "I'm not leaving you!" she said, bending swiftly and yanking him to his feet.
"No time — hurry!" he groaned, trying to push her away; but she pulled on his arm, overbalancing him, and he tottered a few steps towards the office door. As he moved further from the kryptonite, the pain receded slightly and he could breathe again.
"How affecting," Luthor sneered, taking a leisurely puff on his cigar. The green glow of the kryptonite underlit his face, rendering it positively satanic. "There's only one way out of here, Mr Kent — you're caught." He blew out a long streamer of smoke. "Like rats in a trap." He watched, smiling, as Clark shuffled towards the office door as fast as his aching legs would go, dragging Lois with him.
There was only one question hammering in Clark's mind.
Had Martha opened the Beanstalk door already, and switched off the device?
He barged through the door into the office and saw, with a rush of relief, the Beanstalk door still outlined on the opposite wall. He gave Lois a shove. "Open it," he panted, clinging to the office door while he caught his breath and gathered his remaining strength for the final effort.
Lois hurried over and opened the door, looking dubiously back at him. Clark heard Luthor say sharply, "That's enough of your little game, Kent. It's time to meet your maker — if you have one." Then the pain surged again as Luthor moved forward.
Clark dragged himself upright, pushed off and staggered towards the Beanstalk. As he stumbled in, driving Lois before him, the hum of the device rose ominously and a red light began to blink on the status panel. Behind them, Clark heard Luthor gasp in surprise as he reached the office door and caught sight of them.
Clark fumbled for the handle and pulled the door shut, even as a bullet whined through the gap and thudded into his shoulder. The Beanstalk mechanism started to scream shrilly, and smoke began to trickle from under the status panel. Lois turned, her face white with fear, and Clark shouted, "Open the door!"
She shrugged, her face screwed up against the noise, and Clark gestured desperately, crying out as the movement jarred his injury. Finally she understood; she whirled and threw the far door open, and the two of them stumbled out into the quiet of the barn.
Hitting the floor heavily, Clark rolled over to look at the Beanstalk mechanism. It was still whining and smoking furiously, the casing glowing red hot. "Switch off…" Clark gasped, and Lois leapt forward. "No!" he yelled, as she swung the door to.
The device vanished behind the shimmering force field, leaving only the front door hanging in space. Then that, too, disappeared. Luthor had opened the back door.
For a moment the force field danced before their eyes, ominous swirling black patterns spiralling through the silver; then, with an ear-splitting pop, it winked out of existence.
In the sudden, shocking silence, the neatly severed end of the power cord dropped limply to the floor.
The day had started on a sombre note, but by evening the revelry was in full swing in the Kent farmhouse. Clark sat back, smiling, and watched Lois and Martha wrangling amicably over the correct answer to one of the Trivial Pursuit questions from earlier. Clark and Jonathan had trounced the women soundly, and Martha had indignantly packed Jonathan off to the kitchen to get refills of coffee and birthday cake, knowing full well that he would appreciate the opportunity to show off how well he could walk now.
Clark reflected incredulously, as he so often did, on the way his life had turned around in the last nine months. The joie de vivre that he had always felt in the alternate universe had accompanied him on his final return home, and as he gazed tenderly at Lois he knew why.
He had started work at the Planet in the autumn, as soon as the harvest was in, and to Perry White's loudly-expressed astonishment Lois had immediately asked to be partnered with him. Perry had been even more amazed when the partnership had flourished. Their personalities were different enough that they frequently struck sparks off each other, enlivening the newsroom to no small degree; but their differences were always resolved amicably in the end, and their writing styles complemented each other to produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Lois herself had had no difficulty getting a job at the Planet soon after she'd arrived in this universe. She had started by cutting her hair, remarking to Clark that that way, any subtle differences her old acquaintances noticed would be put down to her appearance. Then she had simply walked into the Planet, marched into Perry's office, and announced that she'd been underground ever since discovering that Luthor had been behind the Prometheus sabotage, that she had been Clark's secret informant, and that she wanted her old job back. She had been installed at her counterpart's old desk before the day was out.
Clark knew how terribly hard those first days had been for her, working alone at the Planet with the ghost of her partner, not even able to talk to the people around her about it. He had visited her every evening, and held her close most evenings while she cried. He had worried at first that his resemblance to her Clark would make it worse for her, but she had shaken her head vehemently and clung to him when he had suggested leaving her, or bringing Martha to keep her company instead.
As the weeks had passed, she had started to talk about her partner, reminiscing about the times they had spent together. She had asked Clark about his childhood and adolescence, slowly piecing together the puzzle of the man she had never really got to know, the man who had been both Clark Kent and Superman. She had sobbed bitterly over the way she had dismissed Kent in the early days as an incompetent hack, how she had ignored her attraction to him and fawned over Superman, and how she had turned her back on both of them to get engaged to Luthor.
And, in time, they had laughed together over lighter moments: Kent's ties, his pathetic excuses when he had needed to get away and be Superman, his penchant for getting delicious takeaways from secret locations which she now suspected were really in China, Italy and elsewhere around the world.
She had also masterminded the creation of Superman in this universe, remarking that she couldn't be so selfish as to deny the world the assistance of its superhero because of her private grief. Naturally, she'd got the exclusive when Superman had made his debut appearance, coming to Metropolis's rescue when a group of renegade soldiers caused a total blackout of the city and foiling their plans to capture a military satellite. And she had planned their strategy for dealing with Bureau 39; using her knowledge of the organisation in her own world, they had located and destroyed its kryptonite stockpile before Jason Trask had ever heard of Superman, and as soon as he'd shown his face at the Planet he and his men had been arrested.
Finally, while spending Christmas in Smallville, Lois had asked whether the Kents would mind if she put up some sort of memorial for her Clark. After discussing it together, they had all agreed on a simple stone to be placed near the tree which housed the Fortress of Solitude. It was inscribed with Kent's initials, his nominal birth date and the date of his death, and the words, "Not of this world, but in the next, may you receive your just reward." The stonemason had helpfully pointed out what he thought was the mistake in the wording, and had been very puzzled when he was politely informed that there was no mistake.
This morning, Clark's birthday as it had been Kent's, the family had stood around the stone while Lois had read the eulogy she had written for her lost love. And on the way back to the farmhouse afterwards, her hand had stolen quietly into Clark's.
Jonathan emerged from the kitchen, bringing Clark back to the present. He quelled the urge to leap up and hold the brand-new swing door for his father, watching with amused pride as Jonathan manoeuvred the full tray onto the table without spilling a drop.
A sudden knock on the door startled them all, and Clark rose. He decided against taking off his paper party hat on the way to the door, reflecting that anyone who dropped by unannounced on a winter evening was likely to join in the celebration.
He flung open the door, and the friendly words of welcome died on his lips. The bottom had just dropped out of his world.
The visitor stood blinking in the sudden light from the doorway. After a moment he cleared his throat and offered a diffident, "Good evening, Mr Kent."
Clark belatedly remembered his manners. "Please come in," he said, standing aside. Try as he might, he couldn't summon up a smile. He turned to the rest of the household. "Lois, Mom, Dad… this is Mr Wells."
There was a deathly hush, then Martha swept forward, taking charge of the rest of the introductions. In short order they were all seated around the living room with coffee and cake, and Clark was numbly listening to Wells's explanation for his presence.
"I thought you would wish to know what occurred in the other universe when you left," he began.
Lois was nodding with keen interest, Clark saw with a sinking heart. He fixed his gaze on his plate.
"The flux facilitator of the dimension gateway overloaded, as you no doubt guessed," Wells began pompously, "and the device exploded, killing Mr Luthor. The explosion shattered the windows of the secret apartment, alerting the authorities to its presence, and Mr Luthor's records were discovered. Due to Mr Luthor's habit of secrecy, and also due to the mysterious disappearance of the Kryptonian globe before its secrets were discovered," and here Wells allowed a self-satisfied smirk to spread over his face, "the connection between Superman and Clark Kent was never discovered; so the senior Kents of that world are safe. They plan to leave the full story of their son's life to be published after their deaths.
"The details of Mr Luthor's villainy, however, and in particular his murder of Superman, are known. Superman's body was discovered in a secret laboratory where Mr Luthor's scientists were carrying out genetic experiments…" A small, choked sound escaped from Lois, and Clark reached out and covered her hand with his own. Her hand turned and clung gratefully to his.
"The laboratory was destroyed, and Superman's body was given a state funeral with full honours. There has been an enormous groundswell of public opinion against organised crime, and a memorial society called the Utopia Foundation has been instituted in Superman's honour. The future of that universe, which was very bleak before your intervention, Mr Kent, has been altered for the better."
Clark nodded curtly. "Thank you," he said.
Wells's gaze shifted to Lois, and he said the words Clark had been dreading. "But I also have another reason for coming. Ms Lane, you have been stranded inadvertently in a strange universe. If you wish, I can take you home."
"Home?" she echoed. She smiled, and the pain swelled in Clark's chest. He looked away.
There was a brief silence before Lois spoke again. "Lex took away everything I had," she said softly. "He murdered Clark. He blew up the Planet, killing Perry and Jimmy. He ended my career, he tried to destroy my independence and my self-respect, and he even tried to kill me.
"Here, I have my job back. I have Perry and Jimmy back. I even have a trust fund to run, administering the royalties from Daddy's patent." She looked at Martha and Jonathan, then glanced down at Clark's hand, still holding her own. "And I have people who care about me." She looked back at Wells. "This is my home."
A short while later, beaming mistily, Wells waved his final goodbye and stepped through his time window. He had promised to tell the Kents of the alternate universe that Lois was safe, and give them a copy of her eulogy for their son.
Clark turned to Lois, still smiling broadly. His cheeks were starting to hurt, but he hadn't been able to stop grinning since Lois had delivered her decision.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Martha tugging Jonathan into the kitchen.
"Thank you," he said softly to Lois. "That's the best birthday present anyone has ever given me." He knew that his heart was showing in his eyes, but for once he didn't feel he could hide it.
"Oh, you think it's for your benefit, do you, farmboy?" Lois said teasingly. She stepped closer and put her arms round him for a friendly hug; then she looked up into his face and her eyes went wide. "In case you hadn't figured it out yet, I'm not the self-sacrificing type," she continued, her voice growing husky.
Clark's arms closed about her, and she ran a hand up his chest and around his neck to pull his head down. As his lips met hers for the first time, Clark revised his opinion.
*This* was the best birthday present anyone had ever given him.
<<… and they lived happily ever after.>>
(c) Meredith Knight 2002