By Debbie Lee <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted February 2002
Summary: In this Lee, Debbie's first story, a series of strange events are taking place in Metropolis. Who is behind the mysterious happenings? If Clark is to find out, he must pass all the tests ahead of him.
Author's Note: This is a pre-revelation story that takes place sometime after 'Green, Green Glow of Home.' Oddly enough, the idea for this story came to me while I was in the shower. :) I hope you enjoy it. All comments, criticisms, and suggestions are welcome.
Clark walked tiredly to his desk at the Daily Planet. It had been an exhausting day. It seemed that the people of Metropolis had suddenly lost their goodwill towards their fellow man. People were arguing over the slightest thing and fistfights were breaking out on every street corner. He sighed as he sat down behind his desk. 'What is wrong with this city?'
Lois looked up at her partner. "What's wrong?"
He reached up and smoothed back his hair in frustration. "I swear the entire city has gone mad. I was coming back from meeting my source and I saw at least six fights breaking out in the middle of the sidewalk. I also ran into Superman earlier and he told me that it's been going on all day and that he's been breaking up arguments that have turned violent since about seven this morning."
"Really? Huh. Must be this heat. God knows, it's making me a little irritable."
Clark smirked. "How can you tell?" He ducked when she threw a wadded piece of paper at his head.
"Hey, I was here first! Why don't you wait your turn, moron?" a voice yelled.
Lois and Clark turned to see what was going on. They saw Ralph and Jimmy arguing over the coffee pot.
Ralph sneered at the younger man. "What are you going to do about it, shorty? Call your pal Superman on me?"
Jimmy held up his fists. "I don't need Superman to pound your face into the dirt." He started to advance towards the reporter but a strong arm grabbed his shoulder and held him back.
"Easy, Jimmy. It's not worth it."
Jimmy turned around, the anger draining out of him. "CK!" He glanced down at his clenched fists and a look of shame crossed his face. "Oh, man. I don't know what came over me." He looked over at Ralph. "I'm so sorry, man. I really am." He walked off, muttering to himself and shaking his head.
Clark glanced over at Ralph, who was glaring at him. "Who asked you to butt in, huh? This wasn't your fight." He poured himself a mug of coffee and stalked off in the opposite direction that Jimmy head headed.
Clark looked from one retreating figure to the other. "What is going on today?" he asked himself.
Clark sighed as he shut down his computer. He had had to leave the newsroom for more Superman activities today than he had ever had to do before. As he reached the elevator, his super-hearing picked up the sounds of gunfire. He ran to the stairwell and a second later, a red and blue blur was streaking across the sky towards Suicide Slum. He landed in the middle of a vicious gang war. The members of the two rival gangs took no notice of the man in the brightly colored outfit among them and continued shooting and fighting. Clark heaved a tired sigh and zoomed around at super-speed, plucking weapons from hands and then tying up the gang members. He had just finished when he heard sirens approaching.
As the uninjured gang members—'Kids, the whole lot of them,' Clark thought sadly—were being loaded into the police cars, Inspector Henderson made his way over to where Superman was standing. "It's a good thing you were here, Superman. There were only five injuries and one death. It could have been a lot worse."
Clark looked over at the Inspector. "Do you have any idea what is going on today? Everyone is so… trigger-happy."
Henderson rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I wish I knew. We've had more people arrested today than we've had for the past week. It's insane. Hopefully, whatever it is, it will stop soon."
As the police cars drove away, Clark was about to launch himself into the air when he heard someone clapping softly. He looked around and saw a young man with dark hair and swarthy skin, standing in the mouth of an alleyway with his arms crossed. He was dressed in jeans and a leather jacket that opened to reveal a black t-shirt. "Very good, Superman," the youth said. "Or should I say, 'Clark'?" He waved his hand as if brushing away a spider web and continued speaking before Clark could react. "No matter. Oh, don't worry, Clark. Your secret's safe with me."
"Who are you?" Clark asked suspiciously.
"You'll figure it out soon enough for yourself. Suffice it to say, I've been causing all of the chaos today."
Clark gaped at the young man. "But why? And how?"
Another wave of the hand. "It doesn't matter how, but as for why… Well, let's just say that this is a test."
Clark felt his anger rising. He was reminded of Luthor's series of tests on Superman when he had first showed up in Metropolis. "Test?" he asked, his voice dangerous.
"The first in a series. I'm only initiating the first. It wouldn't do for you to fail any of them. The results could be quite… dire."
"Why these tests?"
"To see how you will react. How will you solve this outbreak of violence and short tempers? My colleagues and I await your actions with the utmost anticipation. I am afraid, however, that is all the information that I am permitted to give you." He gave a short bow and started walking into the alleyway.
"Wait!" Clark called out and raced after him. An empty dead-end alley greeted him.
Clark entered his apartment still thinking about that odd encounter in Suicide Slum. He did not know what bothered him more: the fact that the young man had known who he was, or that he was again being bombarded with a series of tests. He remembered the man's question. "How will you solve this outbreak of violence and short tempers?"
That was a very good question. Clark moved to his couch and sat down to think. Lois's voice came unbidden into his head. "Must be the heat. God knows, it's making me a little irritable."
Could the solution really be that simple?
Clark stood up and spun into the Suit. He flew out the window and headed west, searching. Finally, he spotted what he was looking for over Ohio. He blew the dark cloud across the land until the large rain cloud hovered over the city of Metropolis. As the rain fell, Clark flew down to just below the bottom of the cloud and blew a blast of cold air, freezing the raindrops and turning them into snowflakes.
Far below, the city slowly turned white.
The next morning, Lois Lane looked out her window and gasped. The street outside was covered in snow. Everywhere she looked was snow. But it was May! Yet even as she watched, it began snowing again.
The door in a building across the street opened and two children tumbled out, bundled in winter clothes. She faintly heard them shriek as they began building a snowman. Lois smiled.
Clark ferried yet another rain cloud to Metropolis. He had been at it all night and he was getting tired. 'This is the last one,' he thought to himself as he began to freeze the rain to snow.
He scanned the ground below him and smiled as he heard laughter and happy voices. 'I guess Lois was right. People just needed a break from the heat.'
The man who had confronted Clark yesterday in Suicide Slum stood on the roof of LexCorp building and watched the snow fall around him. He smiled and then threw his head back and laughed. "By all the gods!" he cried. "He may just be the one!"
A tired but contented Superman entered Clark's apartment. He called the Daily Planet office and left a message saying that he was sick and was taking the day off. He then all but stumbled to his bed and only stopped to strip off the Suit before falling into bed.
"And so the unidentified disease runs unchecked through the populace of Metropolis. Government officials have placed the entire city under quarantine and no airplanes, cars, buses, or ships are allowed to enter or leave the city. Medical officials are baffled as to the origin of this disease and the country's top scientists are working around the clock in hopes of finding a cure. Curiously, no one has yet died, though over seventy-five people have already lapsed into comas that doctors predict they will never wake from. In trying to control this disease, the government has asked Superman himself to stay within Metropolis to prevent the spread of…"
Clark raised the remote and turned off the television. He sat back on his couch and closed his eyes. The snow had barely melted from the ground when the first case of this disease was reported. Could this be one of the tests that man had mentioned? If it was, Clark did not have the first clue as to how to go about solving this problem. And he was getting frustrated. He had had to ignore several major emergencies because he did not want to risk spreading whatever had infected Metropolis to other parts of the world. Dammit! He was Superman! He could lift space shuttles into orbit and fly around the world in a minute, but here was an enemy he could not fight.
And there was also guilt in that frustration. As the people around him began falling ill, Clark himself had remained unerringly in good health. Jimmy and Lois had gotten sick last week and his heart wrenched when he remembered the two of them collapsing within a day of each other.
Clark sighed and got up. He wanted to pay a visit to STAR Labs to see if they had any news for him. As he flew there, his mind went over the past two and a half weeks: the first cases being reported, the specialists brought in, the government placing Metropolis in quarantine, and finally, Superman himself being asked to stay in the city.
He landed in front of STAR Labs and entered the building. The receptionist at the desk looked up to see who had entered and just waved him on through. He had become a frequent visitor since the disease had been declared an epidemic.
Dr. Bernard Klein looked up wearily from his microscope. "Hello, Superman. I'm afraid that there's nothing new to report. This disease is caused by a virus, but it's a virus that we've never seen before. Its DNA structure is not like that of a regular virus, which is odd and also makes it hard to come up with a cure."
Clark's shoulders slumped. "I was hoping for some good news today, Dr. Klein. Do you have any idea how long until a cure can be found?"
The scientist shook his head. "At the rate we're going, it could be a few years."
"That's not good enough."
"I know it isn't, Superman, but we're trying to go as fast as we can. Unless we can find some natural substance that can counteract the effect of this virus, it is going to take a very long time to synthesize an antibody."
Clark froze, his mind racing. Before he had settled down in Metropolis, he had traveled around the globe. He had spent some time living among some natives in the Amazon rainforest. While he was there, several people had taken ill, with symptoms much like the ones of the people who had taken sick in Metropolis. "Dr. Klein… I think I may have an idea of something that could fight this."
Clark flew south. He was taking a chance in leaving Metropolis and possibly spreading the disease. But if he remembered correctly… He flew over the Amazon rainforest, searching for the tribe he had lived with for a few months. They were descended from the original natives of the continent and had preserved their way of life with very little interference from the outside world.
Catching sight of a thin trail of smoke, Clark angled himself in that direction. Soon, he was landing in the middle of a small village, causing a stir among its inhabitants. "Where is the Latukla?" he asked the villagers in their own language.
"He is in the forest, collecting herbs," a woman answered as she stared at the brightly clad figure before her.
A young man pushed his way to the front of the crowd that had gathered around Clark. "I am his apprentice. I can take you to him."
Clark followed him into the jungle. The two found Latukla digging up vines at the base of a large tree. Upon seeing Clark, the older man got to his feet. "So, the stranger returns."
Clark inclined his head. "It is good to see you again, old friend."
"Yes, it is good. But I can sense that you are not here to visit."
Clark was not surprised. Latukla had always had an uncanny sixth sense about what went on around him. "My people are falling ill and I come to you for help."
"What is the sickness?"
"They are weak and cannot keep food or drink down. After a few days, they collapse and cannot find the strength to walk. They have a very high fever and they cough. Some have already fallen asleep and cannot be awakened."
Latukla nodded. "Ah, the wasting sickness. Come." He gestured for Clark to follow. He pushed through the foliage, searching for something. Suddenly, he stopped and pointed to a small blue-and-white-flowered vine. "This is what you are looking for. Make a tea from the flowers and feed it to the sick for three days. After the third, mix the tea with some gruel and feed it to them until they regain their strength and can handle other foods."
Clark nearly wept with relief. He embraced Latukla. "Thank you, my friend. You will have helped many people."
The medicine man and sometime priest waved away the thanks. "It is my duty and job. Now gather the vines and fly home."
The scientists at STAR Labs took the vines and created a very strong medicine from them. When it was administered to one who was already ill, he or she recovered within a few days. When it was given to those in comas, they woke up, still very weak but conscious and on the road to recovery.
Superman was delivering a load of the medicine to a hospital when a tall, handsome brown-haired woman attracted his attention. She was standing in the middle of the hospital corridor, staring at him with an intensity that made him uncomfortable. Clark walked over to her. "Is something the matter, miss?"
"No. On the contrary. You have passed."
Clark reached out to grab her arm. "Was this another sick test? I want to know what is going on here, and I want to know now!"
The woman stared at Clark with no expression on her face. She then escaped his grip with ease. As Clark gaped at the hand that had been clutching her, she spoke again. "You may not believe so now, but these tests do have a purpose. You will learn what that is soon enough, Clark Kent."
She turned around and walked away, and Clark, though he tried, could not move himself to follow her.
Clark was positive this was another test. After the last of the epidemic patients had fully recovered, there was a food shortage in Metropolis. Superman had been kept busy flying in food supplies from all over the country, but they never seemed to help. And it was in times like these that man's worst nature came out. Those who had food hogged it, while their neighbors went hungry. Clark winced whenever he heard a hungry baby crying. He had stopped several attempted robberies of grocery stores—the thieves were not interested in money, however, but in food.
He was getting tired. He had hardly rested for the past few days as he helped deliver provisions into the city. Clark had had to call in a few more sick days at the Planet, much to Perry's irritation. But for all he was doing, it still was not enough.
Clark was lying in his bed, intending to sleep a few hours before continuing his relief efforts. Only he had found that he could not sleep, no matter how tired he was. His mind would not let him.
"If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime." The old adage flitted through his mind. 'But how can I teach Metropolis to fish?' He thought back to his days on the farm when he was younger, helping his father plow the fields in the spring and then harvest in the fall. But that took too long.
But what if… Clark sat up in bed. What if each person grew enough to feed himself? Would it work? He sank back down again when he realized the time needed for vegetables to grow and ripen.
'This is insane. How can you fight hunger?'
Clark decided to go to work the next morning. "CK! How are you feeling?"
Clark was pouring a cup of coffee and looked up. "I've been better, Jimmy."
Jimmy studied his friend and noticed the bags under his eyes and the tired look in his face. "You've looked better. Maybe you should go home and rest some more."
Clark shook his head. "I've been gone too many days as it is. Maybe working will make me feel better."
Jimmy walked off. "If you say so."
Clark walked slowly to his desk and fell more than sat down into his chair. He leaned back and closed his eyes briefly before reaching for the large pile of mail in his in-box.
"Well, well. Look who finally decided to put in an appearance at work."
Clark looked up and shook his head. "Sorry, Lois, but I'm just not in the mood today."
Lois looked at her partner closely. What she saw there made her face soften. She sat down in the chair next to his desk. "My God, Clark. You look terrible!"
"Thanks, Lois. Coming from you, that means a lot."
"That's not what I meant, Clark—"
He cut her off. "I'm sorry, Lois, but I'm just not in the best of moods today. What with being sick and the food shortage… it just hasn't been a very good week."
"Try month. Before this, there was that virus that incapacitated over half the city, remember?"
"How could I forget?" Clark asked a little bitterly.
Lois looked at him strangely. "Maybe you should go back home, Kent. You really don't look good."
"No, Lois. I'm fine." He turned his attention back to his mail.
"If you say so…" Her voice was not convinced. Clark did not like being so terse to Lois, but he just could not seem to find the spirit today to be civil. 'Better watch it, Kent. It wouldn't do for Superman to start cursing out somebody in irritation.'
"Kent! My office."
Clark sighed and set down his mail and headed over to Perry's office.
"Shut the door, son." Perry sat behind his desk and waited for Clark to take a seat. "Now, you've been out of this newsroom for a while, and I can tell from how you look that whatever bug you had took a mean whammy out of you. I'm sympathetic, son, but I need my best reporters now, and that means that you and Lois. I'm not asking you if you can handle it, I'm _telling_ you that you had better handle it, got that?"
Clark nodded wearily. "I got it, Chief."
"Great. Now the first thing I want you to do is to go over to Lois and look over the information she's gathered on the food shortage. If possible, find out how something like this could have happened and then find a way to solve it."
"Right, Chief." Clark got out of his seat and headed for the door. Before he exited the office, however, Perry spoke up. "And Clark? Don't overdo yourself, okay?"
A hint of a smile hovered over Clark's lips. "Sure thing, Perry."
The two reporters had taken over the conference room. They had been in there for over two hours poring over information. Lois finally threw up her hands. "This is hopeless!"
Clark looked up at her.
"I mean it. The food is coming in, yet somehow, it is never enough for each person to do anything but subsist. Look at this." Lois handed Clark a chart. "Superman's been bringing food into the city by the cartload almost twenty-four hours a day. The guy's moving as fast as he can, yet it's still not fast enough." She sighed.
"Maybe we should figure out just how this happened in the first place."
Lois handed Clark another sheet of paper. "Here's how. The price of food has been steadily increasing for the past year. Normally, this wouldn't be a problem. However, people started to buy less food in Metropolis because of the increased prices and shopkeepers than began ordering less in order to still make a profit. Eventually, there was less food in Metropolis than people need."
"But this didn't happen in other cities."
"Nope. I guess it's just pure, dumb, bad luck at work here."
"Or something else," Clark muttered to himself.
"What was that?"
"Nothing, Lois." Clark began scanning papers again. "So how do we fix this?"
"You got me. Everything that has been thought of has been tried. Food shipments, rationing, even a 'grow-your-own food' program. None have worked."
'Probably because I didn't have anything to do with them,' he thought to himself. Clark frowned. "When I was in Tibet, I remember some of the locals showing me a root that they ate when food was short. It was supposedly high in calories and was nutritious for you. A person didn't need to eat a lot to survive on it. Is there any possible food like that we could import?"
"Why can't we just get Superman to get that root?"
"It's in Tibet. And if we bring it to Metropolis, then we're depriving the Tibetans of a food source. A lot of the people there need every scrap of food they can get."
"Oh." Lois sat pack in her chair and chewed on her pen. "You know, we could probably find out with a little research." She walked to the door and leaned her head out. "Jimmy!"
Superman set down the last load of food and sighed. The food shortage crisis was well on its way to being solved. After some time spent on the computer, Jimmy had produced a long list of food items he called "famine foods" that were high in calories. Not surprisingly, potatoes were on the list. Superman had then concentrated his efforts on bringing only those items that were on the list, while other food was brought in via the more mundane method of trucks. Superman stretched, finally allowing himself to rest after ferrying loads of food nearly nonstop for a week.
"You must be very proud of yourself."
Clark jumped in surprise and turned to confront a tall and dignified black man. "I suppose this was a test?"
He was surprised to see a smile from the other man; the first man had been very nonchalant but had never smiled, nor had the woman in the hospital. "But of course. Well, you've passed, though it took you a while."
"And now what?"
"And now, you wait for the next and last test." The man saluted. "Well, I'll be seeing you."
Clark watched as he walked off, whistling.
The newsroom was bustling. It was a week after the end of the food shortage and everyone was in high spirits. Clark walked to his desk in a happy mood. At first he had been tense, waiting for something to happen. But when no fourth test had appeared, he had begun to let down his guard.
He had just finished sorting through his mail and messages when Perry poked his head out of his office. "Kent! In here now!"
Lois glanced at Clark and made to get up, but Clark motioned for her to stay seated. "I can handle this, Lois. You just finish typing up that story we got yesterday."
A few minutes after Clark disappeared into the editor's office, four people emerged from the elevator. The first three were the people who had confronted Clark before about the tests. The fourth was shorter than the other three and was wearing a black cape with a hood pulled over his or her face. As a group, they began moving across the newsroom towards Perry's office.
Lois stood up when she saw the young man reach for the doorknob. "Hey! You can't go in there!"
The man looked at her. "We're expected." He then opened the door and entered with the rest following.
Clark and Perry both looked at the door as it opened. Perry was ready to yell at whomever was on the other side for interrupting when Clark jumped up. "You!" he cried accusingly.
"Yes, us. Hello again, Mr. Kent." The young man appeared to be the leader of the group. The hooded figure closed the door, cutting off the noise from the newsroom.
"What do you want now?" Clark's voice was dangerous. Perry stared at the reporter in shock. Never had he seen Clark like this.
The hooded figure moved to the front and threw back the hood, revealing a young female face framed by long, straight dark hair. Her eyes were black and belonged to someone much older than her apparent age. "The last test, and the most important one of all." Her voice was soft, yet seemed to fill the whole room.
"You have been tested by War, Pestilence, and Famine. There only remains one more. Death."
Clark's eyes widened. "You can't be serious!"
Death continued without acknowledging Clark's remark. "You have a choice here, Clark. To save either a large number of strangers or a few close loved ones." She nodded at Perry.
"You're insane," Clark whispered.
"At this moment, there is a business building in downtown Metropolis. Five minutes from now, there will be an explosion in the basement of the building, causing it to collapse, killing all inside. Yet, at the same moment when the building will collapse, your parents will walk in front of a moving bus and Perry White here will have a heart attack. A few seconds later, a man will walk into the Daily Planet and shoot Lois Lane, killing her."
Clark collapsed in his seat. "You can't possibly ask me to choose. I couldn't."
"You can, and you will. Who will die and who will live? A building full of strangers, your parents, your friend, or the woman you love… Who will die?" Death leaned in closer. "You must choose, Superman."
Perry gasped. "Superman!" he whispered. "I was right…" he muttered under his breath to himself.
Clark glanced over at his boss and then back at the four in front of him. He would deal with Perry knowing after this was over. "What if I don't choose?"
Death leaned back with sadness in her eyes. "Then they all die."
Clark jumped up again. "No! There has to be another choice."
Death looked at Clark and studied him. "I am willing to forgo all of those deaths for only one. There will be no explosion, no gunman, no speeding bus, and no heart attack if you let me take only one life."
"No. One life is still too many."
Death's eyes glittered. "What if that one life was yours?"
Clark looked at her. He let out a long breath of air and nodded. "Fine. Do it. Take me, instead."
Perry reached over the desk and grabbed Clark's arm. "No, son! You can't!"
Death spoke again. "Think about what you are doing. If you die, then all the people that you could have saved in the future would be condemned to die as well. Are you willing to sacrifice your life, knowing that more will die at a later date?"
Clark looked her in the eye. "That's in the future. This, however, is now. There is no choice. Take me."
"As you wish." From beneath the folds of her cloak, she brought out a glowing green rock. She watched as Clark gasped and crumpled to the floor. Perry cried out and ran to Clark's side. He looked up at the woman holding the kryptonite. "You can't do this! Stop, please!"
"It was his choice." Death leaned down and set the rock down beside Clark and then reached over and smoothed his hair. "It was his choice," she whispered again.
Through his glasses, Clark stared at the four standing above him. He then painfully turned his gaze toward Perry. "Take care of Lois and my parents," he gasped out.
Perry nodded and patted Clark's hand. "I will, son. I will." He then looked at the kryptonite and reached out towards it. A hand grabbed his wrist and Perry looked up to see Famine.
"Don't, please. He is sacrificing himself so that you and others may live."
Perry sat back and watched as the man who was like a son to him passed to unconsciousness. "What is the point of this?" he asked bitterly.
"The point, Mr. White, was to see if he was the one. He was." Death reached out and grabbed the kryptonite again and slipped it beneath her cloak. She then reached out to gently touch Clark's forehead. "Wake up, Clark. I am not taking you just yet."
Perry saw Clark's eyelids flutter and almost cried with relief when Clark opened his eyes. "I'm still alive," he said to Death, almost accusingly.
"That is right."
Perry helped Clark up and to a chair. "But why?" Clark asked.
"You are the one. You will be the one who will finally make us obsolete." War's eyes shone with pleasure. "One day, because of you, we'll be able to rest."
Famine clasped Clark's shoulder. "We had to know. We had to be sure!"
Pestilence reached out her hand and gently touched Clark's hand. "We are sorry for the pain we put you through."
The three then opened the door and left the room, leaving only Death behind with Perry and Clark.
"And what about you?" Clark asked softly.
"Me?" she answered sadly. "I will never be obsolete. I can never rest. Death will always exist." She then turned and left the room, shutting the door behind her.
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