By Nan Smith <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: July 2002
Summary: What should Lois Lane do when she accidentally discovers a naked man with no memory in Centennial Park? In this Elseworld fic, she takes him home to the Daily Planet, of course, and tries to figure out just who and what he is.
Disclaimer: The familiar characters and settings in this story are not mine. They are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions and whoever else can legally claim them. The story is originally based on the Lois and Clark episode "All Shook Up" and any recognizable parts (of All Shook Up or any other episodes of the series) are credited to the writers of the show. Any new characters, scenes and the story itself are mine.
"The Nightfall Asteroid is on a direct course for Earth. This piece of space rock is seventeen miles across, traveling at close to thirty thousand miles per hour. If nothing stops it, it will hit the Earth in a little more than four days." Professor Daitch, Chief Scientist at the EPRAD command and control center based in Metropolis, paused at the end of his announcement and added, almost under his breath, "The sky, literally, is falling."
"What kind of damage could this asteroid do?" The inquiry came from Phil Morrison of the Star.
Daitch took a deep breath. "It could knock the Earth off its axis, even throw us out of our current solar orbit. It's far larger than the meteor that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. The crater alone will throw enough dust into the air to start a new ice age."
Professor Daitch stepped back from the microphone and the general who had introduced him took his place. Lois Lane, like the other reporters at the press conference, had been momentarily stunned by the announcement. It was hard to absorb the meaning of the astronomer's words — that the entire world could die in four days. The whole concept was unreal to her. Science had never been her strongest subject and the idea that a piece of rock traveling from the depths of space could cause the end of civilization, as she had always known it, was almost unbelievable.
Frank Madison, from LNN, appeared to recover first. "Is the government doing anything about it? What's being done to protect the Earth from this thing?"
"Of course, the government isn't standing idly by," General Zeitlin replied, sounding slightly outraged at the mere idea. "There is no need for panic. We are confident we can handle this challenge with existing resources. We have several delivery systems, notably the Asgard booster, which we are in the process of re-programming. At the same time, we're currently attaching nuclear payloads, which, if we can deliver them, will eradicate this threat from our skies."
The press conference concluded a few moments later. Lois charged out ahead of the other reporters and headed straight for the phones, snatching up the receiver of the nearest from under the reaching hand of Linda Watkins. The reporter from the Register gave her a dirty look, which Lois ignored. The biggest story of the century was breaking, and it might be the last one she would ever write. She was darned well going to be the one to write it — first.
"Clark, come and see this!"
Clark Kent, the Acting Editor of the Smallville Press, turned at the shout from Jennifer Douglas, one of the little paper's two full-time reporters. The small television was on in the main newsroom — a cramped space about fifteen by fifteen, crowded with several desks, a copy machine, the coffeepot and various paraphernalia associated with the publication of the little weekly newspaper.
He set down the proof he was scanning and stuck his head in the door. "What's going on?"
"Big press conference at EPRAD! There's an asteroid headed for Earth that might hit us in four days! They're going to try to destroy it with a nuclear missile."
"What?" Clark was suddenly all attention. The EPRAD scientist was speaking again, and he listened to the questions of Metropolis's press, a cold knot gripping his gut. Jennifer glanced at him and back at the screen, biting her lip.
The conference concluded and the scene shifted to the LNN newsroom, which seemed more chaotic than usual. The strained face of a news commentator appeared on the screen looking flustered, rehashing the information Clark had just heard at the press conference, but he was no longer listening. This was the scenario that science fiction writers had envisioned over and over in various disaster novels and movies but it was a different story when it might come true.
He turned at the sound of the outer door opening. Marian Rogers, the other full-time reporter for the little paper, entered. Clark brought himself forcibly back to the day's business. "Marian, get on the phone to Kansas City. I want all the information that EPRAD is releasing to the papers. We still have time to get this stuff on the asteroid into this week's edition."
"Asteroid?" she inquired, looking blank.
"Just call them. We have a paper to get out." Clark glanced out the window at the overcast evening sky. He didn't want to say it or even think it, but underneath he was aware that this might be the last edition of the Smallville Press that was ever printed.
Unless the Asgard rocket did the job the Air Force general had promised it would.
The thought wasn't comforting. The Asgard rocket wasn't designed for something like this. Last year he'd read an article about the possibility of Earth being struck by an asteroid large enough to do serious damage to the planet. The author hadn't been particularly worried. His article had pointed out that it was possible, that such strikes did happen every now and then, but the chances of it happening in this lifetime were infinitesimally small. Only, the chances were one hundred percent if you happened to be directly in the path of a piece of space debris, as it appeared they now were.
Clark bit his lip. After college, he'd traveled the world for several years before returning to Smallville for the past year. He had been preparing to make his most important career advance in the next few weeks — a move to Metropolis and applications to the big papers that based themselves there — most notably, the Daily Planet. He hoped that between his resume and the experience he'd gained while touring the world, it would be enough to land him a foothold on the great newspaper. It would be the realization of a dream.
That might all be changed, now. He frowned, thinking about that. He'd learned a lot about different cultures and different countries during his travels but the one thing that stuck out was the fact that people were more alike than they were different. How they reacted to an emergency would be strikingly similar all around the world. Some would face the approaching disaster with courage, some would panic and some would strive to take advantage of the situation. And some would take steps to save themselves, even at the expense of others. Especially, those who knew or guessed the true extent of the coming destruction and had the resources to do so.
And that was something he needed to find out. What did the people in power really know or think about what was about to happen? Did they really have any faith in the Asgard rocket being able to destroy the monster asteroid before it hit the Earth — and if the missile did destroy it, what kind of destruction would the shattered pieces wreak on the nearly defenseless planet?
First he had to finish getting the paper out and then he had a trip to make. Washington DC was the place to discover what the American government was doing to try to save the day.
The frightening thing was the probability that they couldn't — that all they could do was to minimize the damage and try to make sure that the government survived, so that they could pick up the pieces later and keep the country alive — no matter how many individual lives were lost in the meantime.
Well, the first thing he needed do was to find out what the real situation was. He threw himself into his work, determined to finish ahead of schedule. Clark Kent and his incredible abilities might be the only thing standing between the Earth and its destruction. If he were, there was probably only one thing he could do. The thought scared him.
"…So, they're readying the Asgard booster," Clark said. He was pacing back and forth in the kitchen of the farmhouse where he had grown up. His mother and father sat at the table watching him pace. "There's only one problem with that. They have to wait until the thing gets close and they're only going to have one shot."
"What do you mean?" Jonathan Kent leaned forward, setting his empty coffee cup down with a thud on the table. "Why can't they shoot it now?"
"The Nightfall Asteroid is traveling at nearly thirty thousand miles per hour," Clark said, "and it's going to hit the Earth in about four days. That means that right now, it's nearly twelve times farther away than the Moon is from the Earth. The rocket hasn't got the fuel to take it that far. Even the moon shots couldn't boost the whole way. They're going to have to wait until the thing is almost on top of us before they fire. And it's armed with a nuclear warhead."
"Nuclear fallout," Martha Kent said.
"Probably," Clark said. "That's bad enough, but that's not even the worst eventuality. If we get fallout, it'll be pretty widely scattered. It probably wouldn't be enough to do much lasting damage. But when the rocket hits the asteroid, it's going to be close to Earth. Some of the debris is bound to hit us and this thing is seventeen miles across. The pieces are going to be big. It's the damage that they'll do that I'm worried about."
"And what if the rocket misses?" His mother's voice was very low.
"Even if it doesn't, the Earth is facing a disaster," Clark said.
"Clark, you're not thinking what I think you're thinking," his father said. "I'm sure the government has it under control."
Clark shook his head. "They don't want panic," he said. "They're planning for a disaster of major proportions. I know. I heard them talking. They're already sending important people to the shelters prepared for them in Washington. They *know* it's going to be bad."
"You heard them talking?" Martha Kent's hands were clasped together. "How?"
Clark glanced out the window at the nighttime landscape. The sky was half-covered by clouds, and here and there were clear patches where the stars shone through. The gibbous moon shed white light on the fields, but tonight the moonlight was cold and unfriendly. "I flew to Washington and eavesdropped. I had to know what was really happening rather than what they saw fit to tell us. I've been thinking about it ever since. I can't just let it happen. If there's any chance at all that I can stop it, I have to try."
The little group of three people around the kitchen table was silent for several moments. Jonathan Kent reached out to take his wife's hand. Clark saw the gesture and swallowed. They knew what he intended — had intended since he had discovered the true situation.
"I don't want to do it anymore than you want me to," he said at last. "But I have these strange powers for a reason. Maybe this is it."
"Clark — " Martha began and then stopped.
"Mom, I have to."
"I know." Her face looked pinched and tight in the warm kitchen light. "But I don't have to like it."
"Clark, how are *you* going to get that far and back?" his father asked. "I know you can hold your breath a long time, but that long?"
"I can hold my breath for twenty minutes, " Clark said. "It won't be a problem getting there."
"But it might be a problem getting back." Martha Kent's face had taken on a determined look. "I know you have to do this, Clark, but there's no rule that says you can't do everything possible to ensure that you'll survive."
Clark surreptitiously let out his breath. He'd been pretty certain that they would support his decision, but it was a relief to have his belief vindicated. "I guess you have some ideas on the subject?"
"Air," Martha Kent said. "You're going to need extra air and I know where to get it."
"My scuba gear has exactly what you need. All we need to do is fill the tanks."
He should have thought of it, himself. His mom was always open to new ideas and experiences. Two summers ago she'd taken scuba lessons in town, and in spite of the skeptical instructor, had graduated second in the class. She now knew the bottom of the lake south of town almost as well as he did. "That's a good idea."
"Of course it is. Let's get moving."
"Around the world, panic-stricken crowds are rioting," Edgar Martin, the LNN newscaster was saying. "Churches, mosques, temples and synagogues are filled with people praying for a miracle. There is turmoil in all major cities. In downtown Gotham City, a violent mob smashed windows, overturned cars and looted stores…"
"I coulda told you that was going to happen," Perry White said. Lois Lane turned from the scene on the newsroom monitors to see her boss standing behind her, watching the reports of worldwide panic. "Hell, people even do this when their soccer team loses a game."
"I know." Lois glanced out the window of the Planet. "The Governor called out the National Guard an hour ago."
It was the evening of the day after the press conference at EPRAD and conditions around the world were rapidly deteriorating. At this rate, they wouldn't have to wait for the Nightfall Asteroid to destroy the Earth. The panicky mobs were going to do it first. Why couldn't people keep calm in a situation like this? she wondered, irritably. Going into a blind panic was more likely to get you killed than the actual strike by the asteroid.
Martin turned suddenly away from the camera and from somewhere off screen, Lois could hear excited voices. The man remained turned so all she could see was the back of his head and the picture jiggled and seemed to tilt for a minute. Perry regarded the scene with raised eyebrows. "Must be something new," he commented.
The picture straightened and the commentator turned back to face the camera. "This has just come in over the wire," he announced, his voice shaking. "Observers at EPRAD report that the Nightfall Asteroid has apparently exploded. Repeat: the Nightfall Asteroid has been shattered. So far, astronomers have no explanation for this event…"
For the space of several heartbeats, there was a dead silence in the newsroom and then someone — she thought it was Jimmy — raised a cheer.
Perry White moved forward to hear the remainder of the newscaster's report over the sudden racket and Lois could see his face. He was frowning, apparently not entirely relieved at the news of their sudden and unexpected deliverance from danger.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"Maybe nothing," he said.
"What made it shatter?" he asked. "The Asgard Rocket hasn't been launched yet. A big chunk of rock like that doesn't just blow up for no reason."
"Maybe it ran into something — another asteroid?" Lois suggested, doubtfully.
"Maybe, but why didn't anybody spot it? And even if it did, it's not necessarily such a good thing."
"What do you mean?"
"Lois, that was one huge chunk of mineral. What could make it just blow up like that? Whatever it was, it's still out there — and so are the pieces of Nightfall."
Why did reality have to intrude itself so unpleasantly on her relief? "You don't think any of them are going to hit us, do you?"
Perry didn't answer. Finally, he said, "I don't like to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I have the sneaky feeling that it can't be this easy. Jimmy! Get on the phone to EPRAD. I want to know if they have any idea what happened." He turned back to Lois, who was gathering up her things preparatory to leaving. "You be careful going home, do you hear me, Lois? People are acting crazy out there."
"I will," she reassured him. At his skeptical expression, she felt obliged to protest. "Perry, I can be careful when I want to!"
"Well, you be sure you want to this time!" her boss grunted. "I don't want to lose my best investigative reporter. There are riots going on everywhere. I've been hearing sirens all evening."
The city was eerily quiet when Lois pulled out onto the street ten minutes later. The sun had set and the moon had not yet risen. The sky was thickly overcast and the mist off the bay drifted through the air, blurring the glare of the city lights. The windshield of the Jeep Cherokee was coated with a thin layer of moisture, too light for her to run the windshield wipers constantly but thick enough to distort her vision.
The news that the Nightfall Asteroid had been shattered might have started to percolate through the population of the city. She didn't see any rioters, although that might not mean anything. It was as if the whole city were holding its breath, not yet convinced that it was safe.
And, in truth, she wasn't at all sure that they were safe. The spokesman for EPRAD had given no definitive answer to the Planet's phone calls. He had merely stated that the asteroid appeared to have shattered due to some unknown cause, perhaps a collision with another body, although they had not been able to locate any such object. Questions regarding the safety of the Earth had been met with evasion and the information that there would be a press conference at ten, tomorrow morning, regarding the status of the emergency, after the astronomers had had the time to evaluate the new situation. Altogether, it was a very unsatisfactory answer and left her almost as worried as before.
The route back to her apartment took her past Centennial Park. A light mist was beginning to sift downward from the overcast sky. The streetlights seemed dimmer than usual, and there was no sign of anyone merely walking along the sidewalk or lovers strolling along hand in hand. In fact, there was no sign of human activity at all and she jumped and nearly screamed when a large, white something swooped suddenly out of the dark and flapped its way across in front of her, barely eight feet away.
It was an owl. She gulped in air and tried to quiet the pounding of her heart.
At that instant, a flash of light at the edge of her vision caught her eyes and she looked up, hardly believing what she was seeing.
A blazing fireball ripped its way through the cloud cover, practically over her head. Lois had had some experience along those lines, however. If you ran, it seemed that any object falling from above was going to land directly on you, no matter in which direction you dodged. She brought the Jeep to a dead stop by the side of the street and watched.
The fireball seemed to be plunging directly at her, but she knew that had to be an optical illusion and indeed it was. As it neared her, she saw that it was coming in at a steep angle, although she still seemed to be the target. A billboard advertising the Metroliner was directly in its path and she ducked involuntarily as the blazing object tore through the sign with a crack like a gunshot, passed close overhead in a roar of sound and plunged directly into a stand of trees. There was a balloon of flame, an explosion rocked the air and the trees shuddered and splintered beneath the force of the strike.
Flame was licking at the sign, charring the edges of the hole. In Centennial Park, the trees were on fire. Later, Lois would wonder what could possibly have gotten into her, but at the moment she didn't even hesitate. She scrambled from the driver's seat and ran toward the blazing trees as fast as her legs would carry her.
The only explanation for the fireball that she could think of was that it was a piece of the asteroid that had somehow arrived ahead of the others. She didn't stop to think how unlikely the possibility was. She only knew that she had a chance to get there before police, fire fighters or other journalists arrived on the scene.
Pieces of flaming debris drifted toward her on the breeze. Lois turned to the right to circle the stand of shattered, burning trees so that she could approach from upwind. A cinder alighted on her skirt and she slapped at it with her bare hand. It stung and the burning ember left a hole in the cloth. Well, that was the end of her favorite skirt but it might be worth it if she got a good story out of this.
A flaming branch dropped from one of the trees and she dodged farther right. The branch hit the ground, spraying sparks, and lay there, burning. The grass around it shriveled and began to steam but the dampness of the air was too much for it. The flames began to die within seconds. Looking back at the blazing trees, Lois could only imagine how hot that fireball must have been for the fire to burn so fiercely in the damp conditions.
Circling the flames, she could feel the heat and she lifted a hand to shield her face. Beyond the trees, she found what she expected. The flaming object had struck at an angle and ploughed a long trough in the soft ground of the park. Small shrubs were still smoldering and a crater at the end of the trough was wreathed in smoke.
Cautiously, she approached the crater, not sure what she might encounter. The smoke was acrid and caught in her throat. Absently, she fished in her handbag and found the handkerchief that she had stuffed into the bottom. Hastily, she shook out the crumpled wad and held the cloth over her mouth and nose, still advancing cautiously toward the crater.
A light gust of wind blew a spray of water into her face and she realized the falling mist was growing heavier, helping to put out the smoldering brush on either side of the trough. The little licks of flame around the crater began to go out with sullen hisses of steam.
There was something moving in the trench, she saw, almost unwilling to believe her eyes. Whatever it was must be badly burned — an animal or —
He pushed himself up on his hands, coughing, his motions hesitant and uncertain. His face and body were covered with black soot — and nothing else.
In any other circumstance, she would have been embarrassed, but embarrassment took a second place to complete shock. The man coughed again and managed to make it to a sitting position.
"Are you all right?" Lois called.
He heard her. He turned his head, squinting up at her in the darkness, and rubbed his temple. "Uh — yeah. I think so."
He didn't sound too certain of that, she thought. He was sitting in the smoldering crater as if not sure what to do next. Lois hesitated and removed her coat. "Here! Put this on!"
She threw the garment to him. It landed in his lap and he stared at it for an instant and then slowly began to pull it over his arms.
It was too narrow in the shoulders, she saw, but he managed to get into it and buttoned the lower part of the garment around his middle, leaving a wide expanse of chest and midriff bare.
"Are you hurt?" she called.
He hesitated and then made an effort to stand. "I don't seem to be. I don't think I am." His shoulders came to a level perhaps a foot below the rim of the crater. Lois hesitated and then extended a hand.
He took it. His hand felt hot and the dirt and soot were gritty on her palm. "Come on," she commanded, "you can't stay in there."
With her help, he scrambled up the crumbling edge of the crater. As soon as he made it to solid ground, Lois dropped his hand and backed away to a safe distance, but he made no hostile move, as she was half afraid he might. He simply stood, looking around with a bewildered expression on his face.
"What happened?" she demanded. The circumstances were pretty unbelievable. The fireball had hit and she had found a completely naked man sitting, apparently unhurt, in the very center of the crater.
"I…I don't know." He rubbed his face, smearing the soot more thoroughly across his features.
"Who are you?"
In the uncertain light of the fire, he looked more lost than ever. "I don't remember," he mumbled. His voice had begun to shake. "I…I don't know."
Something was very weird here. Still, she couldn't just leave the guy stranded almost naked in Centennial Park, in the middle of the night. He might be hurt more than it looked like. Didn't people die from internal injuries when they seemed perfectly fine? The least she could do would be to drop him off at the emergency room.
"Come with me," she commanded. "And don't try anything. I have a brown belt in karate."
He obeyed without an argument, the confused expression on his face growing more pronounced. Maybe he was in shock. Whatever was wrong, he didn't seem to be aggressive. But where were the emergency services? she wondered, leading the way back toward the Cherokee. It would be nice of them to show up and relieve her of this particular responsibility.
This wasn't such a bright move, she was telling herself a minute later as they approached the Cherokee. Sure, the guy looked harmless, but there was still the possibility that it was all an act. Still, what was she supposed to do?"
Behind them, the burning trees were beginning to put out more smoke than flame. The drizzle was having an effect. It didn't look as if the fire was in much danger of spreading — which was fortunate, because there was still no sign of the emergency services showing up. What on Earth was going on? she wondered, still keeping a wary eye on her companion. Hadn't anyone except her seen the fireball coming in?
As she and her dazed companion neared the Jeep, two shapes rose out of its shadow and approached them. Lois stopped. The figures came closer and she could see the streetlight glint off metal in the hand of the one on the right.
"Hey, lady." The voice was mocking and amused. "This ain't a good place to be walking around at night."
The other man guffawed and she saw that he, too, held a knife. Lois began to back away.
A powerful hand seized her by the arm and swung her around. Suddenly her new companion was standing between her and the approaching men. "Leave the lady alone." His voice had lost its confusion and sounded almost threatening.
"Yeah? Who are you? Little Bo Peep?" The man on the right showed his teeth in a grin that was half a sneer.
Lois's protector didn't answer. In the light of the street lamp, his soot-smeared face looked grim and determined. Lois kicked off her shoes. If she was going to have to defend herself, the last thing she needed was to twist her ankle because of a pair of high-heels.
The first man lunged forward, the knife swinging in, slashing at her companion's arm. What happened then was almost too fast for Lois to follow. In a blur of movement, he caught the knife hand, twisted the weapon free and flung it away.
The second man rushed in at almost the same instant but it didn't catch her defender off guard. He caught the second attacker's weapon by the blade and the metal snapped like balsa wood. The attacker howled in pain as his hand was twisted backwards and Lois could swear she heard the crunch of bone. Then, both men were running away, fleeing into the darkness. Lois and the unknown man were left standing alone in the puddle of light from the street lamp.
"Are you all right?" The man who had so ably defended her turned toward her, his soot-smudged face concerned.
"Shouldn't I be asking you that? Are you cut?" She reached forward to examine his palm but there was no sign of an injury. "Where did you learn that?"
The confused look had returned to his face. "I don't know."
Almost absently, she stooped to pick up her shoes and slide them back onto her feet. "Well, thanks, anyway. I'm going to take you to the hospital. I think a doctor should look at you. You might have a concussion or something."
Obediently, he nodded. "All right."
Somewhere in the far distance, she could hear a siren, but it didn't seem to be approaching. More sirens joined it, equally distant. The man raised his head. "Look." He pointed.
"What? — Oh."
To the west, she could now see a ruddy glow. The sounds of the sirens had become louder but were not growing any closer. It must be a good-sized fire, she thought. It looked like the emergency services had other things to do than to rush to a fire that seemed to be going out on its own.
The drizzle was growing slowly but steadily heavier. Lois led the way to her Jeep and unlocked the door. This might be dangerous, but judging by what she had seen, if this guy had wanted to hurt her, he could have done it already. "Get in," she said.
He obeyed and reached across to unlock the driver's door for her. Lois slid behind the wheel, glancing at him in the illumination of the dome light.
Even with his face smeared with soot and lined with fatigue, he was remarkably good-looking, with black hair and dark brown eyes. He certainly didn't look like an axe murderer, and though looks could be deceiving, after the events a few minutes ago, she was inclined to trust him. He closed the passenger door and leaned back in the seat, closing his eyes. Lois shut her door. Starting the motor, she pulled away from the curb. Metropolis General wasn't more than a couple of miles away. Once she got him there, she could hand him over to the skilled hands of the emergency room staff and be on her way. Still, she would have liked to know how he'd gotten where she had found him. Maybe…
He opened his eyes and sat up. "Do you hear that?"
All she could hear was the patter of raindrops hitting the roof and the distant wail of the sirens. "Hear what?"
He hesitated. "I'm not sure. It's coming from up ahead."
Was he hearing things? Lois glanced sideways at him and then turned her attention to the road. It was starting to rain hard enough to make it necessary to turn on the wipers. The asphalt gleamed slickly black in the illumination of her headlights.
The street turned ahead of them, leading toward a more residential section of town and as she rounded the corner, she found herself stamping on the brakes.
Halfway down the block, a crowd of people was advancing, blocking the entire width of the street. Faintly, she could hear shouts, screams, and something that sounded like gunshots. Some in the crowd clutched various implements: baseball bats, shovels, rakes, and one man in the lead was brandishing what looked like a cricket bat. Many held flashlights and a couple actually waved crudely made torches. One woman was carrying a lopsided sign that read "Repent! The End is Near!" As Lois watched, several persons at the forefront of the mob descended upon a truck that was parked by the side of the street. A bat-wielder swung at the windshield and there was a shout of approval, faintly heard through the glass of the Cherokee. People surged forward, rocking the truck and obviously attempting to overturn it. Lois didn't wait to see more. She shoved the Jeep in reverse and backed up, swiveling the wheel as she did so. In an instant, she had reversed their direction and gunned the motor to escape from the rioters. No wonder the police hadn't shown up at the park, if this was going on around the city!
"What are we going to do now?" Her companion had remained quiet while she executed their escape, but now he spoke up.
She had already decided. Trying to get through the streets to her apartment was taking too big a risk and it looked as if a trip to the hospital was going to be equally risky. But the Daily Planet was only a few blocks away, back the way she had come. With luck, she and her new acquaintance could take refuge there until morning.
The security bars had been closed and locked at the entrance to the Planet's basement parking lot. The guard peered suspiciously out as Lois pulled up at the little window and waved her press pass at him. "Ms. Lane? What are you doing here?"
"It's too dangerous for me to try to make it home," she explained, quickly. "I ran into a bunch of rioters. I'm staying here, tonight."
"Don't blame you. Just a minute." The guard turned away and a second later the barred gates rolled aside. She pulled the Jeep through. The lot was much less crowded at this time of night and she spotted a parking place almost immediately.
Behind her, she heard the clang of the closing gates. With luck, that would keep out anyone who was trying to take advantage of the emergency. Carefully, with hands that were starting to shake, she pulled into the parking space and cut the engine.
In the sudden silence, she leaned her forehead on the steering wheel for a moment, feeling lightheaded from the sudden release of tension. Her companion touched her arm. "Are you all right, Miss?"
Slowly, she sat up. "Yeah. I'm fine."
He smiled, almost shyly. "I haven't thanked you for helping me."
She gave a short laugh. "That's all right. You helped me, back there, too." She extended a hand. "By the way, I'm Lois Lane."
He took the hand. "It's nice to meet you. I wish I could tell you what my name is."
"It's all right." She hesitated. "I need a name for you, though. Why don't I call you Charlie for the moment? You kind of look like a Charlie."
"What does a Charlie look like?" he asked.
"I don't know. You, I guess. Maybe you'll remember your real name after you've had some sleep. Do you have any idea how you got to where I found you?"
He shook his head. "I'm sorry — no."
She opened her door and slid out. "Let's go upstairs to the newsroom. There ought to be some other people up there."
"Okay. You're the boss."
"Besides," she added, "maybe we can find you some better clothes."
He glanced down at himself and she was surprised to see a red flush stain his cheekbones. "I could sure use some. I'm surprised you didn't run screaming when you saw me."
She couldn't help a faint grin. "Oh, it wasn't that terrible a sight."
He didn't answer, but his blush deepened. She locked the door of the Jeep and slammed it shut. "Come on," she directed. "The elevator is this way…"
The newsroom was relatively quiet when Lois stepped out of the elevator with "Charlie" following her. Three or four people were moving around and the monitors were on with the sound turned down. There was light in the editor's office, which wasn't really a surprise. She could see Perry at his desk. For a moment, she wondered if the man ever went home, but then, tonight was an unusual one, anyway. After all, she hadn't even managed to make it to her apartment and Perry lived farther from the Planet than she did.
Jimmy Olsen emerged from the supply closet with a package of printer paper in his hands. He saw her and stopped, his gaze going past her to her oddly dressed companion. Lois had to admit that it looked pretty strange, but Jimmy hadn't gone through the last hour with her. She led the way down the ramp with a businesslike step and waved at an empty chair. "Wait there for a minute. I need to talk to my boss."
Perry stepped out of his office as she approached. "Lois — what happened? Who's that guy? Why's he wearin' your coat?"
Her reflection in his office window explained the first question. Her face was smeared with streaks of soot and her hair had definitely looked better. She made an ineffectual gesture at it and gave up for the moment. "I can't get home, Perry. I ran into rioters. I figured I could sleep here tonight."
"Are you all right? And who's that guy?"
"He doesn't know. Did anyone report the fireball?"
"We saw it from the window. There's only been one report on the news — " Perry broke off, staring at her. "What happened?"
"It came down in Centennial Park," Lois said. "I was there when it landed —"
He was silent while she gave him a quick summary of the events of the past hour. When she finished, he whistled softly. "Honey, if anyone else told me that story, I wouldn't believe it. Okay, Charlie can stay for the night. I guess we owe him that, at least. You write up what happened. At least some people will want to know about that crater in the park. Any idea how he got where he was?"
Lois shook her head. "None. And he doesn't remember."
"Guy's probably in shock," Perry said. "Let's hope that's all that's wrong. I guess I better say hello."
Lois nodded and led the way across the newsroom to where Charlie sat.
He got to his feet as they approached, pulling Lois's coat more closely about his chest, without much result. Perry held out a hand.
"Hello, Charlie. I'm Perry White, the editor here. Thanks for helpin' Lois in the park."
Charlie took his hand. "I couldn't let those men hurt her. It's nice to meet you, sir."
Perry grinned slightly. "Wish more people felt that way. Are you all right, son? Lois told me where she found you."
"I think so — at least, I don't seem to be hurt — except that I can't remember anything." Charlie ran a hand through his hair, making it stand more on end than ever. "I don't even know my name. It's a little scary."
"Maybe you hit your head," Perry said, helpfully. "Tomorrow, we'll try to get you to Metro General — and a little sleep might help, too. In the meantime, maybe we can find you something better to wear. Jimmy!"
Jimmy had been hovering nearby, obviously curious about the strangely dressed man. Perry beckoned him forward. "This is Charlie. Take him down to the lockers and find him some clothes."
"Right away, Chief." Jimmy grinned cheerfully at the newcomer. "Hi. I'm Jimmy Olsen. Come on. I think I can get you something better than Lois's coat. Mind if I let him use the shower, Chief?"
"I think that might be a good idea," Perry agreed. He and Lois watched the two of them leave and then Perry said, "You were lucky he turned out to be a good guy, Lois. He could have just as easily been another mugger. What was he doin' in Centennial Park at that hour, anyway?"
Lois shrugged. "I'm more interested in how he turned up in the crater without a mark on him. Not to mention, how he disarmed two muggers and didn't pick up a scratch. And what was that thing, anyway? Was it a piece of Nightfall?"
"I don't see how it could have gotten here so far ahead of the predictions," Perry said. "There's a limit to how fast it could travel."
"Did EPRAD have any idea?"
Perry shrugged. "We've been trying to phone them, but the lines have been jammed. Evidently, a lot of other people have been trying to call them, too."
"Yeah." Lois glanced down at the hole in her skirt and grimaced. "I think I'll go wash the soot off my face. Have you managed to get hold of Alice?"
Perry shook his head. "She's been visiting the boys for the last couple of days. I tried to call, but the lines are pretty much jammed all over the country. I'm going to try again a little later. Maybe if EPRAD gives us an 'all clear' tomorrow, I'll be able to get through."
"*If* they give us the 'all clear'," Lois said. "This is crazy, Perry. Where on Earth are the police? A lot of people ought to be arrested for what they've been doing tonight."
"There aren't enough jails to hold every person who's been doing stupid things for the last day or so," Perry said. "No police force on Earth could control an entire city in a panic."
"I guess not. It's scary how quickly things can fall apart. I wish people would keep their heads in an emergency."
"Most do," Perry said. "It's the ones who don't that cause the trouble. Let's hope things quiet down by tomorrow. I'm lettin' Jimmy stay here tonight, too — his place is over near the spot where they're fightin' that fire. Arson," he added, grimly. "He probably couldn't even get through."
"Perry, you're not going to try to go home at this time of night, are you?" Lois tried to sound casual, but she was aware that her boss wasn't fooled. He shook his head.
"No, not tonight. There's too much goin' on. I might need to be here." His expression didn't change. "You can sleep on the couch in my office. It'll give you some privacy."
Lois had finished writing up her article about the fireball when Jimmy reappeared with Charlie. She glanced at them and then did a double take. Dressed in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and without soot covering him from head to toe, the man whom she had rescued was definitely worth a second and maybe a third look. Jimmy was talking animatedly to him when they emerged from the elevator, and from what Lois gathered, he was explaining what a photojournalist's job entailed. Charlie was listening attentively and nodding in the appropriate places, apparently absorbing all the confusing details that the younger man was throwing at him with machine gun speed.
The monitors switched to an aerial view of the street in front of City Hall at that moment and someone turned up the volume. A milling crowd filled the screen and a thin line of police in riot gear appeared to be holding them back. The mayor was speaking, calling for calm, his voice almost drowned out by the voices of the crowd.
"What's going on?" Charlie had deserted Jimmy to stand beside her. His heavy, dark brows were drawn together in a frown. "All those rioters, and this — what's happening?"
"You don't know?" Thomas Bailey, one of the reporters on the night staff, asked.
"Charlie has amnesia," Lois said, absently. She turned her attention from the monitors to the man standing beside her, feeling almost reluctant to explain the current circumstances. Could that be why his memory had disappeared? she wondered suddenly. Didn't that happen sometimes? She knew very little about amnesia, but she seemed to recall reading an article at sometime or other about someone who had been so upset about events in his life that he had literally blocked it all out. She supposed it was possible, but Charlie, or whatever his name really was, didn't seem to be the kind of guy who would run from danger. On the other hand, what did she really know about him?
The answer, of course, was almost nothing. She knew he seemed to be a decent guy, but there were plenty of things about him that she couldn't explain. If she survived the next three days, she might have time to figure out who he was and how he had managed all the things she had questions about. But, in the meantime…
He was looking directly at her, obviously waiting for her to enlighten him. She put a hand on his arm. "Come on into the conference room, Charlie. I'll tell you about it —"
Lois woke for the fifth time, and looked up at the dim ceiling of Perry White's office. The reason she was here came back at once and she turned over, trying to get comfortable on the office couch.
The blinds were drawn to give her privacy and she could see light in the room beyond leaking around the edges. The night staff was still awake, although the lack of noise out there seemed to indicate that nothing much was happening.
The clock on the wall said it was three-thirty. Lois squirmed around on the cushions again and closed her eyes, trying to will herself back to sleep. She was tired, but at the same time, her brain was active and wide-awake. Every time she closed her eyes she could see the fireball plunging toward her and in her sleep she had relived over and over the moment when she had first seen Charlie in the middle of the smoking crater.
The sheer impossibility of that circumstance contrasted with the fact that she had seen it with her own eyes. Common sense said that Charlie couldn't have been where he was, stark naked, and yet have walked away without a single scorch mark. And then there had been the muggers' knives. He might have escaped damage by the first one — maybe, anyhow. It was just possible that some advanced fighting technique that he didn't consciously remember was behind it, but she had seen him seize the second one by the blade. He should have been sliced at the very least and yet his hand had been uninjured.
"Lois, you're going to start imagining miracles in a few minutes," she muttered to herself. Either Charlie was some kind of supernatural being or he'd been incredibly lucky. Since the probability of angels being involved was pretty low, she might have to accept the idea of sheer dumb luck even if she couldn't imagine any possible way he could have escaped injury.
There had been that story last year — that kid in Texas who had been picked up by a tornado, carried fifteen miles away and deposited in the middle of a field without a scratch and without a stitch of clothing. Seemingly impossible things did happen, but this one…
All her instincts rebelled against that explanation where Charlie was concerned, but no other solution presented itself for the time being — at least, none that she was prepared to accept.
Finally, she sat up. She wasn't going to get any sleep this way. Maybe a drink of water would help.
The Planet's newsroom was quiet when she opened the door of Perry's office. Jimmy was dozing in his chair and Sara Hardesty was frankly asleep with her head on her desk. The monitors were still on, their sound turned down to a whisper. Tom Bailey and the other two members of the night staff were sitting around the coffee machine, conversing in whispers.
Perry was sound asleep on the conference room table, she realized a moment later, his jacket rolled up under his head. Lois winced. His back was going to bother him in the morning. Maybe she should wake him up and send him in to sleep on his couch. After a moment's consideration, she rejected the notion. He'd given up his office couch for her, with his typical Southern chivalry, and taken the far less comfortable bed, but at least he was asleep. If she woke him up now, he'd probably be awake for the rest of the night.
"Can't sleep?" Charlie's voice spoke quietly from behind her, and she almost jumped.
She turned around. "Don't sneak up on me like that!"
"Sorry." He looked apologetic. "I thought you'd hear me."
"It's okay. I guess you were trying not to wake anyone. I just got up to get a drink of water."
"I heard you moving around," he said. "I couldn't sleep, either. It's pretty hard to think the world might end in just a couple of days and my whole life is a blank. I don't know if I have a family that's looking for me, or a job or anything."
"You still can't remember how you got to where I found you?" Lois asked.
He shook his head. "It's as if my life started when I woke up in that crater and heard you ask if I was all right."
"Well, the fireball couldn't have hit you," Lois said. "You'd have been dead in that case. You say you woke up in the crater?"
"Yeah." He followed her as she walked to the water cooler. "I was dreaming — at least, I think I was. I couldn't breathe and I was running from something, trying to get somewhere that I'd be safe — and then I was waking up and you were there."
"And you didn't have a mark on you," Lois said. "I'd have thought you'd have at least picked up a few burns. The ground was hot."
"I know. I could feel it — but I must not have touched anything too hot because it didn't hurt. Just dumb luck, I guess. Weird, huh?"
"That's one word for it," Lois agreed. "Or two, anyway. I'd like to get another look at the crater. Maybe we could figure out what happened if we saw it by daylight."
"I suppose." Charlie looked doubtful. "Look, Ms. Lane — "
Lois grimaced. "Call me Lois. I think we've gone past the 'Ms. Lane' stage."
He looked embarrassed. "Considering how you found me, I guess. Okay then, Lois. There's a lot of stuff going on out there right now. It could get kind of dangerous."
"Charlie, I'm an investigative reporter. I know how to take care of myself."
"I didn't mean you couldn't," Charlie said, quickly. "I just meant, it's more dangerous than usual. You probably could use some backup, just in case. And I want to find out what happened, too. Would you mind very much if I went with you?"
She considered the request for a moment. Although she would never admit it, the idea of having a muscular bodyguard along — one who had already proved he knew how to take care of himself, especially considering the situation out there right now — had its appeal. She pretended to hesitate. "I really shouldn't let you get into more trouble. You've already lost your memory. But, it does involve you, after all."
He looked hopeful. Finally, she said, "Well, okay, I guess it's only fair. There's a press conference at EPRAD at ten, tomorrow morning, to update us on the status of the Nightfall Asteroid. If you don't mind, I'd like to drop you off at Metro General in the morning and pick you up after the conference. We'll go back then and look around. Besides, maybe you'll have remembered more by then."
He nodded. "Thank you for wanting to help," he said, quietly. "Not to know anything about myself — what I've done, what I've missed —"
Lois nodded, feeling a little ashamed of herself. True, she liked Charlie, but her main reason for doing this didn't really have much to do with helping him regain his memory. Charlie had confronted her with a situation that seemed impossible on the surface, and Lois Lane had never been able to leave a mystery alone. Still, she rationalized, if she found out more about how he'd arrived where she had found him, she might be able to help him, too. That made her feel a little better.
The first part of her plan was scuttled the next morning when a triage nurse informed her over the phone, that the emergency room was swamped and the wait for all but urgent cases was approximately ten hours. Since Charlie appeared to be in good health except for his memory loss, he would not be considered a priority case.
Lois passed on the news. "Do you want to go there and wait for ten hours?"
He shook his head. "No. Who's to say they won't get other urgent cases they have to take first? If I still haven't remembered anything when this is all over — if it ever is — then I'll go."
"That's probably sensible," Perry said. He glanced at Lois. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Yes," she said. "I can't help thinking the fireball has something to do with Nightfall. Call it a hunch if you like. Charlie and I are going to go back to the park right after the press conference and take a look at the crater by daylight."
"Just watch out for muggers," Perry said, dryly.
"We will," Lois said. "What's the latest on the riots?"
"It looks like things have calmed down a bit, now that it's daylight. Most people aren't as brave about breaking the law when other people can see their faces." Perry fixed her with a no-nonsense look. "You still be careful out there, you hear me? Not everybody is behaving himself. I've been hearing sirens all morning."
"I will be. Charlie will have to wait in the Jeep until after the press conference is over and then we're going to the park. He's determined to play bodyguard," Lois said.
Charlie didn't smile. "It's not safe out there for anybody right now," he said. "I won't let anything happen to her, Mr. White."
"I can take care of myself," Lois said.
"I don't doubt it," Perry said. "Just have mercy on your old editor and make sure you come back alive, all right?"
"I will." Lois glanced at her watch. "Come on, Charlie. We've got an hour to get to EPRAD and there are bound to be traffic problems."
Jimmy appeared with a pair of wrapped sandwiches. "Here you are, Lois. Two cheese sandwiches out of the vending machine in the lobby. It was all they had left."
Lois made a face, but accepted the items and handed one to Charlie. "Here. This will have to do until we can get something else later."
He took the sandwich. "I'm not really that hungry —"
"You haven't eaten since last night," Lois said. "I don't want you passing out from hunger. Eat it."
He obeyed meekly and Lois took a bite from her own, dismissing the subject.
The press conference at EPRAD got off to a slow start. Professor Daitch and General Zeitlin were several minutes late and the members of the press were not taking it well, Lois thought. When the two men finally appeared and approached the microphone, several of the assembled journalists began to shout questions before either man had been given a chance to speak.
Daitch raised his hands before him, waiting for the noise to die down. When it finally did, he was slow to begin. Lois didn't like the expression on his face. The scientist had a grim set to his mouth. He didn't look like a man who had been issued a reprieve.
"We have just completed a briefing with the Federal Emergency Management Team. This meeting was called to discuss the new situation regarding the Nightfall Asteroid." Professor Daitch cleared his throat uncomfortably and glanced sideways at the general. It was obvious to Lois that he wasn't happy about the information that he was going to impart. Her heart sank. Daitch paused for several seconds and the assembled members of the media began to stir restlessly.
"The explosion of the Nightfall Asteroid has changed the situation somewhat," the man continued, finally.
"What do you mean by 'somewhat'?" Lois asked. "Is the Earth still in danger?"
The scientist hesitated a long moment. "Unfortunately, yes. A large portion — approximately three miles across — remains on an impact course with the Earth. It is accompanied by other, much smaller pieces both preceding and trailing it, some of which can be expected to miss or to burn up in the atmosphere, and some which will reach the surface of the planet. They may cause a certain amount of damage, but it will be minor in comparison to the largest object." He paused. "We expect the meteor swarm to arrive approximately fifty-five hours from now."
"Is the government doing anything about it?" Frank Madison inquired.
General Zeitlin stepped forward and Daitch seemed relieved to surrender the spotlight to him. The General fixed Madison with a stern eye. "The Asgard booster is still available and is expected to be able to eliminate the largest object," he said. "The smaller objects may cause a certain level of damage but nothing outside the capability of disaster relief organizations to cope with. The situation has improved considerably. The greatest danger the Earth faces at this moment is the panic and civil disturbances we've seen over the last twenty-four hours. If necessary, martial law will be declared to maintain order." He glanced at his watch. "Now if you will excuse me, ladies and gentlemen of the press, I'm due at a meeting in five minutes."
"I guess the news wasn't very good," Charlie said.
Lois shook her head. "There's still a big piece of asteroid headed for us. Some littler ones, too, but the one they're worried about is three miles across."
Charlie swallowed. "How long?"
"Fifty-five hours," Lois said. "I hate to admit it, but I'm scared."
"So am I." Charlie said, soberly. "Anyone would be."
They were silent for several moments, waiting while the crowd of cars around them maneuvered for the quickest way out of the lot.
"What do you want to do, now?" Charlie asked, at last.
Lois took a deep breath and blew it out. "I guess we'll do what we planned on doing. I don't even know why, you know? The fireball still isn't explained and I just have the feeling that it somehow has something to do with Nightfall, but I can't begin to tell you why. Even if we do find out something about it, it probably won't help." She looked at his expression and felt suddenly ashamed of herself. "I guess I'm not used to being so helpless. I need to be doing something. If we can just figure out where you came from, at least we can get you back to your family, if the Asgard rocket doesn't manage to save us. When I wrote the story about the fireball, I told all of it — finding you, everything. It's on the front page — a sidebar to the Nightfall update from last night. Maybe somebody will realize who you are and come forward."
Charlie met her eyes and smiled. "Thank you."
She smiled back. "I'm not really being all that altruistic, you know. If I didn't have something else to think about right now, I'd go crazy."
His smile widened a little. "I know. I feel a little the same way. But if I have to be in this situation, I'm glad it's with someone like you."
The streets were quiet as they drove away from EPRAD back toward Centennial Park. Lois tried not to look at the debris left by last night's riots: the smashed windows and overturned or burned cars. Twice they were stopped by police checkpoints and allowed to go ahead when Lois presented her press pass. When they finally arrived at the place where Lois had been when she had first seen the fireball, neither said anything. She pulled up to the side of the street and she and Charlie carefully locked the doors before they started for the crater.
The morning was bright and sunny. It was hard to believe that somewhere out in space, growing ever closer, a mindless chunk of rock, three miles across, was plunging toward them at nearly thirty thousand miles an hour; that in slightly over two days it would smash into their world, bringing an end to the life that everyone had known. Of course, there was still the Asgard rocket, Lois reminded herself. If they could hit the thing with a nuclear payload, the fallout might be something they would have to deal with afterwards, but at least civilization would survive.
"It came from there," Lois said, pointing in the direction of the sign, where a jagged hole, charred at the edges, showed the path of the fireball the night before.
Charlie looked, and then followed her pointing finger to the shattered stand of trees. "Wow," he remarked. "You'd think something like that would have made a bigger crater. Have you ever seen the one in Arizona?"
"No," Lois admitted. "I've seen pictures, of course — " She broke off. "You remember seeing it?"
"Yeah, kind of. I think I saw it from the air. It's this huge crater —"
"Do you know when?"
The look of discovery on his face faded. "No."
"Well, at least you remembered something." She took his elbow with one hand. "Come on. Let's go look at it by daylight."
There was no one visible as they walked toward the broken, charcoal skeletons that had been a stand of maple trees the night before. As they rounded the trees, Charlie stared at the trough the fireball had ploughed in the soft ground and the crater at its end. "Good grief! And you found me in the crater?"
"Right at the end," Lois said. She was watching his face as he stared at the damage. He scowled, as if trying to recall something that slipped from his grasp as he reached for it. "Are you remembering anything?"
"Just that dream," he said, slowly. "I remember the dream."
"Tell me about it," she said. "Maybe it wasn't all a dream."
He shook his head. "I don't see how it could have been anything else."
"That's okay. Tell me what you remember about it, anyway."
"All right." He let her lead him toward the crater as he began to speak. "I was scared; I remember that much. I was trying to get away from something but I don't think it was anything alive. It's funny, you know — most of time I don't remember what I dream, or I just remember bits and pieces and then I forget even that after a while."
"Maybe that means this was something more than just a dream," Lois said. She was aware that she was clutching at straws but, so far, there didn't seem to be anything more concrete to work with. "Anything else?"
"I remember not being able to breathe," he said. "I was falling and there was no air. I thought I was dying, and then all of a sudden it was hot — not hot enough to burn me, but hot — and there was air."
"Was the air hot, too?" Lois asked, before she thought.
"Yeah, it was. I was falling and it was hot, but I could breathe. Then, there was a kind of a crash and nothing for a while. And then I heard you asking if I was all right." He paused, his brow still wrinkled with the effort at recall. "Weird, huh?"
"Yeah," Lois said. "Definitely weird. Especially since I found you in a crater so hot it was still smoking."
He shrugged. "Maybe I dreamed it because the crater was hot."
"Yeah, maybe. I'd still like to know why you didn't get burned, though."
"Believe me, if I knew, I'd tell you."
They were standing at the edge of the crater, now, looking down at the scorched, torn earth. Was it her imagination, or could she see the imprint of his body in the blackened dirt? Something gleamed dully amid the ashes, reflecting the late morning sunlight. She glanced at her companion. "Charlie, could you give me a hand? I want to get down in there and look around."
He seemed doubtful, but nodded. "Okay."
Lois kicked off her shoes and set down her shoulder bag. She always kept a change of clothing at the Planet, and the pantsuit was probably going to need dry cleaning after this, but she wanted to look more closely at the crater before any more evidence was destroyed by the weather. "Okay, I'm ready."
Charlie held out his hands and she took them. An instant later, she felt herself lifted as lightly as a feather and lowered over the side of the crater. Slightly surprised at his apparent strength, she almost didn't realize it when her feet touched the scorched dirt at the bottom. She almost stumbled as he let her go, and regained her balance with an effort. Wow! Charlie had a nice build, but he was even stronger than he looked.
"Are you all right?" He was kneeling at the edge of the crater, looking at her in some concern.
"Um, yeah. Fine." She turned her attention to the marks his body had left in the dirt. There was where he had sat up, and that mark looked like a handprint — which meant his head would have been here… Again, she saw that dull gleam as light reflected off something nearly buried in the dirt and ash.
Lois leaned down and picked it up.
It came free easily and she frowned at the object in puzzlement. What on Earth was a pair of glasses with half- melted frames doing here?
"What is it?" Charlie asked.
"Glasses," she said. "Melted glasses."
"Let me see," he requested.
She held them up to him and he reached out to take them. He frowned at the glasses with a look of half-recognition.
"Are they yours?" Lois asked.
"I don't know."
"Well, hold onto them for me a minute." She looked around again, careful not to disturb the marks that Charlie had left the night before. The places where he had lain were as scorched as the rest of the crater.
This didn't make sense, she thought. Every indication said that Charlie should have been badly burned, but he obviously wasn't. There was something she was missing here — something important.
"Is anything wrong?" he asked.
"I'm not sure." She turned and held up her arms. "Help me out, please."
He gripped her hands and hoisted her out with no more effort than he had used to lower her into the hole. Lois dusted herself off and slipped her shoes back on. "Do you still have the glasses?"
"Oh, yeah." He had stuck them into a back pocket, but now he retrieved them. "Here."
She tucked them into her handbag. Maybe a lab could tell her something about them, but the chances were that they would remain one more unsolved mystery in this whole investigation — unless Charlie regained his memory before it was too late.
"Find anything, Lois?" Perry asked.
Lois looked up from her examination of the melted glasses.
"Yeah — these. I don't know if they mean anything, though. Charlie seems to see just fine without glasses, so they may not be his. The spot where he was lying was just as burned as the rest of the crater, though. It doesn't make sense."
"Any sign of whatever the thing was that came in last night?"
She shook her head. "Nothing. Just a big hole in the ground. This is really weird, Chief."
"Yeah." Perry sighed. "One more mystery to add to all the other ones right now. What shattered Nightfall? I mean, I'm grateful. An asteroid that's three miles across is better than one seventeen miles across. It may cause a lot of damage, but at least the Earth and the human race will still be here afterwards."
"Yeah, well another ice age doesn't bode well for humanity," Lois said. "And if what we've seen in the last couple of days is any indication, it won't be a picnic."
Her editor shrugged. "I'll take any pluses that we can get right now. We're not dinosaurs. We can take steps to survive when they couldn't, even if it won't be fun. The human race won't become extinct."
"And there's always the chance that the Asgard rocket will do the trick," Jimmy said. "I don't like having to depend on a rocket. Things break down, people make mistakes — but it's better than nothing."
"Has anyone called about Charlie?" Lois asked. "I made sure to mention him in my piece about the fireball — just in case."
Perry shook his head. "The lines are still pretty much jammed. I did get a call through to Alice, finally. She hasn't been able to get a flight back to Metropolis." He straightened up. "Hell, she's probably just as safe where she is. Maybe safer."
"Maybe," Lois said.
"Did you get hold of your parents, Lois?" Jimmy asked.
"Yeah. Mother, Dad, Lucy and I managed to get together for a conference call, a little while ago. Mother and Dad even acted as if they liked each other. It was nice."
Perry glanced at Charlie where he stood looking out at the city. "He's probably the luckiest of us all. If he can't remember what it was like, he won't miss it so much when it's gone. You tell him he can sleep here again tonight, Lois. It wouldn't be right to throw him out with no place to go."
"That was nice of Mr. White," Charlie said a few moments later. "I appreciate it."
Lois nodded. She looked out the window at the clear blue of the sky. It didn't look as if doomsday was approaching. Wasn't it supposed to be covered with clouds and foreboding shadows or something?
The elevator doors opened at that moment and Cat Grant stepped out. The Planet's gossip columnist glanced around and, as might have been expected, her gaze settled immediately on Charlie. Surprised, Lois found herself bristling slightly as the woman came quickly down the steps to the newsroom floor, and had to remind herself that she had no reason to be jealous. Charlie was just a guy she'd met last night, after all.
"Well, well — who's this?" Cat looked Charlie over, and Lois could have sworn she was licking her lips.
"This is Charlie," Lois said. "He has amnesia and he stayed at the Planet last night. Charlie, this is Cat Grant, our gossip columnist."
Charlie extended a hand. "Pleased to meet you, Miss Grant."
Cat ran her eyes over Charlie in a way that Lois found annoying. "Pleased to meet *you*, Charlie," she purred, eyeing him like a tiger checking over a potential meal, Lois thought. "Now I'm sorry I decided to leave early, yesterday. If you need a place to stay tonight, I have room."
"Um — thanks, but Mr. White already offered," Charlie said, looking uncomfortable.
"I can offer a few fringe benefits that Perry can't," Cat said, trailing a finger along his arm.
Lois couldn't take it anymore. "I'm hungry," she announced, suddenly. "Do you suppose it's safe to go out for something to eat? And all you've had since yesterday was a stale, cheese sandwich, Charlie. You must be starving. Come on — my treat."
He shrugged. "I'm not really hungry."
"Don't be so noble. If the Asgard rocket misses, money won't mean anything, anyway. Besides, I'll feel safer with you along. Let's go."
Appealing to his chivalry was apparently the key. He smiled at Cat. "All right, Lois. It was nice meeting you, Miss Grant."
"The nerve of that woman," Lois was saying, a few moments later as they left the Planet via the front door. "She only just met you!"
Charlie wisely said nothing. Lois fumed silently for a few more moments. How *dare* Cat move in on her territory like that! She'd discovered Charlie! The woman had absolutely *no* class!
The streets were fairly quiet near the Planet, but Lois could hear sirens not far away. Things weren't nearly as uneventful as they looked from here. Uncharacteristically, she had no wish to rush to the scene. One more riot at this point wouldn't make any difference or even make news.
"It looks like the coffee shop is open," she said, pointing. "Want to eat there?"
"Sure," he agreed. "We probably won't find anything better right now."
A few moments later, they were seated in a booth by the window. Two other customers were there, one of them a police officer who was waiting at the cash register. As they watched, an employee emerged from the kitchen area with several bags of food in a large carton that had originally held ketchup. The officer picked it up and departed.
"Can I help you?" A young woman had appeared by their table. "Hi, Ms. Lane."
"Hi." She looked familiar, although Lois had never learned her name. Her nametag introduced her as Lena. "Not much business today, huh?"
"Not much. People are afraid to go out anywhere. We've had some police and firefighters in." Lena sighed. "If that Nightfall thing hits, I wonder if there'll be any businesses left. Well —" She plastered a smile on her face. "What can I get you?"
For once, Lois ordered a full meal with genuine sugar and cream in her coffee and real butter on her toast. If Nightfall hit the planet, she might not be alive long enough to get fat, anyhow. Why should she deprive herself in order to stay slim if it didn't matter anymore?
Charlie, in spite of his declaration that he wasn't hungry, made a good meal as well. Lois couldn't quite imagine herself eating a full order of steak and shrimp with all the trimmings in the middle of the day, but if it made him happy, she wasn't going to argue at this point.
Taking a cautious sip of her steaming coffee, Lois watched her companion. He presented a puzzle that was a welcome distraction to the larger problem that she couldn't solve. Everything about him, so far, was contradictory. About the only thing she was sure of was that he was a decent guy.
She blinked suddenly, realizing what she was seeing. He had picked up his coffee that was certainly as hot as hers, since it was steaming vigorously, and took a healthy swallow. He didn't even wince.
"Isn't that hot?" she inquired. "Didn't you burn yourself?"
"It's not that hot," he said, apparently unaware of her sudden attention.
"It's steaming," she said. She put out a hand and felt the cup. The surface was hot enough that she couldn't rest her hand comfortably on it for more than a couple of seconds. There was no way he should have been able to swallow the coffee without scalding his mouth just as there was no way he should have been able to lie in that crater without being badly burned. And he obviously didn't realize there was anything unusual about it.
Just what was Charlie, anyway?
"Is something wrong?" Charlie asked. "You've been looking at me like I've grown another head ever since we had lunch."
They were strolling along the street, back toward the Daily Planet. The street wasn't empty, but there were only a few people visible and not all of them were individuals Lois would care to meet alone in a dark alley. The faint smell of smoke drifted past them in the light breeze and somewhere not far away, sirens were screaming. She ignored them.
"Lois?" Charlie repeated. "Is something wrong?"
She shook her head. "No. I'm still just trying to figure you out."
"Well, let me know if you do."
She nodded agreement, suppressing the urge to tell him what she'd noticed. She didn't want to look silly, but she didn't think she was wrong. Charlie was resistant to heat. The hot coffee hadn't affected him at all, even though it would have burned anyone else. Somehow, Charlie was different and she was determined to figure out how and why.
Unbidden, the thought from last night popped into her mind. Either Charlie was a supernatural being or he'd had an incredible bout of sheer, dumb luck. It was beginning to look as if it was more the former than the latter. Did angels look like Charlie? True, he was extremely good looking, but supernatural? That was a harder bite to swallow. Still, wasn't it an incredible coincidence that he'd turned up just now, even without his memory?
For a moment, her more practical nature reasserted itself. The whole idea made her think that the stress might be making her lose her mind. She didn't really think Charlie had been sent to save the Earth from Nightfall. But that fireball…how could it have been part of the shattered asteroid? Nightfall — or what was left of it, anyway — was still two days away. If it hadn't been a piece of Nightfall, what had it been — a fluke meteor that just happened to crash into Centennial Park while she had been there, just missing a man who had miraculously survived, and who just happened to be fireproof?
It all seemed, somehow, too much of a coincidence.
Underneath, she was aware that she was clutching at straws with a vengeance, but what the heck! If she was wrong, it couldn't do any more harm, that was for sure. If there was the faintest chance that there was some kind of weird connection, didn't she owe it to herself to try to find out? Charlie was apparently fireproof — and possibly more. He'd tackled two men with knives last night; he'd actually grabbed one knife by the blade, snapped it and come away unscathed. It was probably temporary insanity on her part, but there was a lot about Charlie that still needed to be explained. Maybe it was time to start believing in miracles. Or just hoping for them.
Only, what did she do now with this incredibly crazy idea? Obviously, the first thing was to help Charlie regain his memory, only how was she supposed to do that? There was at least a ten-hour wait at the hospital for him to be seen. Besides, what could an emergency room doctor do? Refer him to a psychiatrist in a month or so?
Well then, how about a private doctor?
"Charlie," she said, suddenly, "I know someone who might be able to help you."
"Who?" he asked.
"Her name is Dr. Ruth Friskin. She's a psychotherapist. My sister saw her a few times."
Both his eyebrows went up. "A *shrink*?"
"Well," Lois pointed out, "it's your memory that's the problem."
"Yeah, I guess." He didn't look enthusiastic, but finally nodded. "So, how do we find this Dr. Friskin?"
"Well, we could try to call her. Perry said the phone lines were jammed, though. Or, I guess we could just go to her office."
"She may not even be there."
"True, but we can only try. Let's find her address."
There was a public phone a short distance ahead with phonebooks available. Lois took the white pages and began to leaf through the businesses in the "F" section. "Filbert…Franklin…Ah, Friskin!" She read the address. "She's only a couple of blocks from here. Do you want to walk or take the Jeep?"
"You don't think she'll take me right away, do you?"
"It can't hurt to try," Lois said. "Let's go."
He nodded reluctantly and they turned in the direction of Ruth Friskin's office. Lois led the way with a confidence she didn't completely feel. She couldn't help wondering which of them needed to see the doctor more, Charlie or her. This had to be the craziest idea she'd ever had. Still, even if it did no more than help Charlie remember who he was, it might be worth it.
Dr. Friskin's office was open, but only one man paced distractedly about the waiting room and the receptionist's station was empty. When Lois led Charlie into the room, he glanced at them but didn't speak.
"Is Dr. Friskin here?" Lois asked.
"Yeah. My wife's with her, now." The man fell silent. Lois marched to the receptionist's station and began to ruffle through a stack of papers. After a moment, she found what she was looking for.
"Here, Charlie," she said, presenting him with a printed form. "Fill this out."
Charlie accepted the paper and a pen from the receptionist's pencil holder and settled down in an armchair.
"It wants a last name," he said, after a minute.
"Just fill out what you can," Lois directed. "They can't expect a man with amnesia to know much about himself."
"That's for sure," he mumbled. A few seconds later, he handed her the paper. He had filled out the name she had given him and his gender. The rest was blank.
It was about fifteen minutes later when a thin, determined- looking woman entered the room, followed by the doctor, herself. The woman glanced at her pacing husband and turned to the doctor. "I still think Norman needs to talk to you more than I do." She advanced and took his arm. "Let's go, Norm, before you have a real nervous breakdown."
Dr. Friskin smiled. "I'll see you Friday." She turned to Lois and Charlie. "Can I help you?"
Lois stepped forward. "This is Charlie. I found him last night in Centennial Park. He's lost his memory and we were wondering if there was anything you could do to help."
The doctor's eyebrows flew up in surprise but she took the paper Lois handed her. "Hmm." She cast a measured glance at Charlie. "You don't remember much, I see."
Charlie ducked his head. "I'm afraid not."
Dr. Friskin shrugged, lightly. "Well, since most of my patients haven't bothered to show up today, I guess we have the time. Why don't you come in here, Charlie?"
Lois almost followed them, but thought better of it. She sank down in the armchair where Charlie had been seated and considered picking up a magazine to kill time, but somehow, with the possible end of civilization approaching at several times the speed of sound, "Health Tips for the Business Professional" didn't seem to be relevant. After a moment, she was on her feet, pacing, and didn't even remember standing up.
She had always made jumps of intuition which, more often than not, turned out to be right or nearly right, but this idea of hers had to be completely nuts. What did she expect Charlie to do, even if he remembered everything when he came out of Dr. Friskin's office? Fly into space and stop the asteroid cold? Just because the man was fireproof didn't mean he could produce miracles.
Still, there was so much about him that didn't add up — and besides, she liked him. Lois Lane never did anything out of sentiment, or almost never, but Charlie was such a charming guy in an innocent sort of way and he obviously trusted her to try to help him. In the face of that, she found herself completely unable to turn him loose to cope on his own. And there were still the questions that she wanted answers for. What had really happened in Centennial Park last night? Who was Charlie and where did he come from?
It was over an hour before Charlie returned. Dr. Friskin accompanied him. "Remember what I said, Charlie. Once the emergency is over, your memory will probably return. I'll just fill Ms. Lane in, now. If you feel as if you need to, call me. I'll make time to listen to you."
Charlie nodded. "Thank you."
"Any luck?" Lois asked.
"Not yet." Dr. Friskin beckoned Lois into her private office and shut the door. "I wanted to speak to you, Ms. Lane."
"Can you help him?" Lois asked.
"I don't know." Dr. Friskin took a seat behind her desk. "He's given me permission to give you information about his case, so I'm going to speak freely." She glanced at a note pad in front of her. "Charlie's almost complete memory loss is of a type we call 'hysterical amnesia' — that is, it's frequently caused by some event or situation that the person desperately wants to forget. There's nothing physically wrong with him that I can see, but he told me how you found him, and, of course, I read your account in the Daily Planet. That kind of trauma is more than enough of an excuse for the mind to trigger the memory loss. My guess would be that anxiety about the asteroid is a factor. Once it's past, his memory will probably return."
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Lois asked.
"Try to get him to talk to you. Be a willing listener. Since we don't know anything about his past, it isn't possible to immerse him in familiar settings or the like. If you can find anyone who recognizes him, it will be a help."
"Yeah, I figured that," Lois said. "I'll do my best. Now," she added, "about payment —"
Ruth Friskin shrugged. "Call it my act of charity for the week. If Charlie's memory returns in the near future — and assuming the world survives past the next couple of days — we can talk about payment, then."
They left Dr. Friskin's office a few minutes later. Lois glanced at her watch. It was just past two. In about fifty-one hours, the Nightfall meteor swarm would be here. What would it be like? she wondered. She could almost envy Charlie his loss of memory, except that he knew about the asteroid. How could it help him to forget everything about himself if the cause was still there, *and* he knew about it? Dr. Friskin was probably mostly right, but Lois had to think that something else as well lay behind it. But what?
"Charlie," she began and paused. What could she ask him to talk about if she knew nothing of his past? "Dr. Friskin thought you might have blocked out your memory because of Nightfall…"
"Yeah, that's what she told me," he said. "I don't see how that could be it, though. I mean, I know about it. What difference does it make?"
"That's what I'd like to know. It's not as if you could do anything about it."
He stopped walking, abruptly and Lois turned in surprise to see him standing still, an odd expression on his face. "Charlie? Are you all right?"
He rubbed his eyes. "Yeah, I think so."
"What happened? You looked funny for a minute."
He shook his head. "I don't know. When you said that, it was as if — " He broke off.
"I don't know. It was like I almost remembered and then I had this flash, like — almost like something hit me."
"What was it? Do you have any idea?"
He shook his head. "Whatever it was, it's gone."
Lois looked at him in silence for a long second. "Well, let's head back for the Planet — no, wait. My apartment isn't that far away. I'd like to get a shower and a change of clothes, as long as there aren't any more riots going on by the park. Come on."
Agreeable as always, he followed her, not speaking. What he might be thinking, Lois didn't try to guess. Her thoughts, however, were racing.
What had happened at the instant Charlie stopped walking? Like most casual conversation, she couldn't quite recall. She glanced furtively at him as they walked along the sidewalk toward her apartment. She had said something — they had been talking about his memory loss in relation to the asteroid and she had made a remark about his not being able to do anything about it, anyway. He had almost remembered something and now he couldn't recall what it was — as if his mind wouldn't let him remember. But that was crazy! What could one man do about an asteroid of that size — even if he could get to it? I didn't make sense.
But something about that conversation might have made sense — for an instant — to Charlie.
The street in front of Lois's apartment house was quiet, but the rioters had been here. On both sides of the street, windows were smashed and the hulks of three burned- out cars lay on their sides on the pavement. The smell of smoke was heavy in the air.
Her apartment house showed signs of the violence as well. The glass windows at the entrance had been broken but the door remained otherwise intact. In fact, it was locked and Lois had to fish out her key for only the second time in the five years she had lived there. When the door swung open, she led the way inside and jumped at the sight of a man with a shotgun in his hands, watching her narrowly.
"Ms. Lane! Don't scare me like that!" The apartment manager lowered the weapon. "I think more hooligans are trying to break in!"
"There's nobody out there, right now," Lois said.
"I cannot reach the police and the television shows riots all over the city," Mr. Tracewski said. "I am taking no chances. Who is this?" He looked past her to Charlie, who was quietly relocking the door.
"This is Charlie, a friend of mine," Lois explained. "He came along for protection. There *are* a few trouble spots still, but most of the rioting seems to be over — at least for now."
The manager of Lois's apartment house seemed to relax slightly. "Good. Then I go get some lunch. I worry about it tonight, instead. Be careful, Ms. Lane." He nodded to Charlie and disappeared down the hall, carrying his shotgun.
Lois and Charlie looked at each other. "I guess this is what we have to look forward to if that thing in the sky hits," Charlie said, finally. "I don't think I like it."
"You and me, both," Lois agreed. "Come on. I need to get that shower."
"Are you sure you want me up there?" Charlie asked. "I mean, you don't really know me."
"Come on," Lois said, again. "I think I've learned a lot about you since last night."
"That's more than I have," Charlie muttered, but he followed her toward the elevator. "At least," he added as Lois punched the call button, "you're not on the first floor. You won't have rioters climbing in your windows."
"I guess." The doors opened immediately at her signal and they stepped inside. "I never had to think much about it before. The way things have changed in just a couple of days is scary. And, it could get much worse."
Charlie risked putting a hand on her arm. "If the worst happens, I won't let anything happen to you, if I can help it."
She smiled at him. "Thanks, Charlie. You're a good person."
In truth, she was a little surprised at her feeling for Charlie. She had known him for less than twenty-four hours and he was already becoming a friend in her estimation — someone she trusted with her safety. If she hadn't, she wouldn't be bringing him up to her apartment, that was certain. He might not have his memory, but the kind of person he was came through loud and clear. It was too bad, really, that she had only gotten to know him when the end of the world was looming over their heads. Charlie was someone she wished she had met a long time ago.
Amazingly enough, there was hot water and she took the time to luxuriate in a long, hot shower. When she stepped out of her bedroom sometime later, she found Charlie watching the news on LNN.
"Anything new?" she asked.
"No. President Garner was just on, asking for people to stay in their homes and not to panic. He's 'confident' that the Asgard rocket will do its job."
"Even if he wasn't, he wouldn't say so," Lois said. "I wish we had something else to back it up."
"So do I." Charlie stood up. "Are you ready to go back to the Planet?"
"Not yet. I thought maybe you'd like a chance to shower, too. You haven't since last night."
He gave a sudden grin. "Are you saying I need to?"
"Well — "
"Thanks, I'd appreciate it," he said. He ran a hand over the stubble that coated his chin. "I tried to shave this morning, but there was something wrong with the razor Jimmy gave me. I broke three blades."
"Maybe the pack was defective," Lois reasoned. "I'm afraid the only one I have is an electric ladies' shaver. I don't think that would be something you'd want to use on your face. It's okay," she added daringly. "I think it makes you look sexy."
Charlie turned slightly pink. "I'll go shower."
Lois heard the shower come on a few minutes later. She glanced at the television and saw that the picture was one of wild confusion, while a voiceover informed her that the transmission was coming in from Spain, via satellite. A mob was surging through the streets of Madrid, smashing storefront windows, setting fires and overturning cars. Looters were running from stores, carrying away everything from television sets to bicycles and leaving chaos in their wake. There was no sign of the police. With a gesture of annoyance, she grabbed the remote control and shut it off. The last thing she needed to look at was more proof that humanity was losing its tenuous grip on civilization. Unable to stand the thoughts that generated, she turned and hurried into the kitchen to put on the coffeepot. It should be done by the time Charlie got out of the shower, she thought, deliberately turning her attention away from the destruction she had just witnessed.
As she shoveled coffee into the machine, her mind returned to the instant that Charlie had swallowed the scalding coffee without a wince. Charlie was immune to heat and didn't know it. Was the immunity restricted to heat or did it extend beyond that? What had he said? He hadn't shaved because the razor had been defective. But what if the problem lay not with the razor but with Charlie?
"Oh, come on, Lois," she murmured under her breath. "What are you thinking? If he couldn't shave, he'd have a beard down to his knees by now. He must be in his mid twenties, at least!"
But the question wouldn't quite go away. How could a man be immune to heat? He wasn't a robot or anything. In the first place, she'd seen the prototypes of robots that were in the process of development at various centers of science and technology. They were marvels of mechanical and electronic engineering, that was certain, but they didn't look anywhere near human and, as far as she knew, science was years if not decades away from creating a robot that could pass for a human even from a distance. And besides, machines didn't grow beards. Okay then, barring science fiction scenarios, what was the explanation for Charlie?
There simply wasn't any. At least, there wasn't one that she could think of. So, if Charlie defied explanations, then she might as well think of him as a miracle. You didn't have to explain miracles, and if that were true, then maybe the rest of it wasn't so far-fetched at all.
She had been staring blankly at the coffeepot for some time, and the coffee was beginning to pour into the pot. At that instant, she heard the shower go off. Charlie would be back within minutes, and she was standing here staring at nothing like some kind of loon. Quickly, she turned to her cupboard and found two coffee mugs. She had noticed at lunch that he seemed to prefer real sugar in his coffee. Utilizing her kitchen's small step stool, she located her rarely used sugar bowl on the very top shelf of the tiny pantry, and discovered that it still contained some sugar.
Closing the cupboard with one hand and holding the sugar container in the other, she stepped backward and her foot missed the step. She made a desperate effort to save herself. The container flew from her hand as she grabbed for support and the step stool tilted sideways. With an involuntary scream, she fell.
A pair of powerful arms, beaded with moisture, caught her. Charlie's voice, sounding shaken, said, "Lois, are you all right?"
She found that she was clasping him around the neck, tightly enough to strangle him. He set her feet gently on the floor and she realized suddenly that Charlie was dressed only in a towel wrapped around his waist. His powerful shoulders and chest were still damp and his hair was dripping. Somehow, she forced her arms to release him and managed to smile, albeit a little shakily.
"Yeah — yeah, I'm fine. Thanks." By the end of the sentence, she had her voice under control.
"What happened?" he asked.
"I missed a step." She glanced almost furtively at his muscular torso and quickly forced her gaze up to his face. Wow! Last night it had been dark and he'd been covered with soot, but at this moment, she couldn't imagine how she'd managed to miss just how good he looked.
He glanced down at himself. "I guess I better go get dressed," he said quickly and was gone almost on the word. It was only then, once the distraction of his appearance had been removed and her brain began to function again, that she started to wonder.
How had Charlie gotten there in time? There had been no more than a second or two at the most between her scream and the instant he caught her. It was obvious he'd barely stepped out of the shower; he hadn't even had time to dry his hair, and she couldn't imagine that he'd been on his way into the kitchen, dripping wet like that. Even if he'd had improper plans for her, he'd at least have dried off, first. Just how fast could Charlie move?
By the time he returned to the kitchen, she had swept up the spilled sugar and her heart rate had returned to normal. His hair was still damp but had been combed severely into place and he was, naturally, still wearing the jeans and T-shirt with which Jimmy had supplied him last night. She set the whisk broom and dustpan back in the little closet. "I was going to offer you some coffee, but I guess I spilled the last of the sugar. Sorry."
"That's all right. I'm just glad you're not hurt."
"Charlie —" She hesitated to ask him about it, but she had to know. "Where were you when you heard me scream?"
He shrugged. "In the bathroom. Why?"
"I just wondered." Should she tell him? Would it help or hurt him? Lois didn't know and had no way to ask. Maybe Dr. Friskin could tell her if she posed the question in such a way as to avoid specifics. Dr. Friskin would undoubtedly think she needed psychotherapy if she were to tell the good doctor what was going through her head at this moment, but she really needed to know. Charlie wasn't ordinary; that was obvious to her, now. He had survived that fireball, wasn't burned by scalding coffee and now had demonstrated, all unknowing, that he could move far faster than a normal man should be able to move. It was inconceivable to her that his arrival was merely a coincidence. He had to be here for a reason and what better reason than to save them all from Nightfall? But something had gone wrong; something had happened to terrify him into the loss of his memory. What could it be?
A suspicion was hovering in the back of her mind, one that she had so far regarded as out of any realm of possibility. There was still no explanation for the fact that Nightfall had been shattered. She cast a measuring glance at him. Was it possible? What had the fireball been? It couldn't have been a piece of Nightfall; that had already been established. But what if it had been a ship or something? A craft with its own system of propulsion could have gotten here ahead of the asteroid swarm.
Wait a minute! What was she *thinking*? First it was supernatural agencies and angels and now it was little green men! She *must* be losing her grip on reality! Besides, there hadn't been any sign of a ship in the crater and Charlie looked pretty human to her, even with his unexplained abilities and admittedly impressive physique. He sure didn't look anything like the drawings of putative "aliens" from Roswell or somewhere. And yet…
She turned off the coffeepot with a resigned sigh. "I guess I'll need to get some more sugar if you're going to be around for a while," she remarked. "I'll try to pick some up at a grocery store tonight, if any of them are open." She glanced at her watch. "I guess we'd better get back to the Planet. We've been gone nearly four hours."
The street was still quiet when they left the apartment house, walking quickly. Here and there, Lois spotted brave souls hurrying along the sidewalk, looking around alertly. Most people were in pairs or small groups and they moved at a brisk pace, as if they were a little nervous about staying in one place for long.
Somewhere, not far away, Lois could hear police sirens as well as the distinctive sounds of fire trucks and paramedic vehicles. For a moment, she debated the wisdom of making her way to the scene but decided against it. LNN was undoubtedly covering it from the air and, besides, what was one more end of the world demonstration? It wasn't as if it would do any good, and at present, they all seemed to be turning into riots anyway. If you'd seen one riot, you'd seen them all and she had better things to do with her time.
"If we cut through the park here, it's ten minutes to the Planet," she said a few minutes later, gesturing to the little winding path that led through one of the most scenic sections of Centennial Park. In December, of course, most of the trees were bare of leaves but enough pines and evergreen hedges had been included in the landscaping that the park was still respectably green. "I was lucky to get a place this close to work. If my car is in the shop, I'm not stuck with public transportation."
Charlie nodded. "I usually walk to work," he remarked and stopped, staring at Lois. "I remembered!"
"Where do you work?" Lois asked, quickly.
He was frowning. "I don't know. There was just that one bit. Do you suppose it means anything?"
She shrugged. "It might be some kind of progress. You remembered flying over the meteorite crater in Arizona, too. At least, it means you're remembering a little. Does anything come to mind? I mean, what kind of work you might do or anything?"
He shook his head. "I don't think so. I do seem to remember flying…maybe I'm a pilot."
"Well — there's a private field around here. Maybe we should go out there and look around. Besides, if you're a pilot, maybe someone at the field would recognize you."
"That's a thought," he agreed. "Do you have the time to try it?"
Lois made a face. "I don't see why not. The only news to cover right now is the riots and one riot looks pretty much like every other one. EPRAD isn't giving any more press conferences until tomorrow afternoon, just before they fire the Asgard rocket. I'll want to be there for that, of course."
"Of course," Charlie agreed. "I wish I could be there, too. I feel like I'm missing out on all the important stuff. Think what a great story it will make if things go the way they're supposed to."
Lois glanced at him, slightly puzzled. Why would Charlie sound so excited over a potential story? The only people who ever did that, in her estimation, were reporters and editors. Charlie seemed a bit too young to be an editor, unless it was one of those little one-horse rags in small town America. Was it possible he could be a reporter?
Well, first things first. She could flounder around trying this and that in the way of jobs or she could go at it methodically. She'd follow the pilot thing first since it would be sunset, pretty soon. Maybe she could even get someone to take them up in a plane to let Charlie get a taste of flying. Then, she'd take him on a tour of the Daily Planet. Maybe he'd remember something. But, if he were here from — well, somewhere else — then, this wouldn't do any good.
Again, she shook off the thought. Who really believed in flying saucers, after all? That was for those UFO flakes who congregated in Roswell every year, or went out in the desert and sent out signals, hoping to attract aliens. If a flying saucer ever actually arrived, they'd probably run screaming into the night.
Charlie caught her arm suddenly, stopping stock still on the path. "Wait, Lois."
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"I hear something."
She listened. The only sound was the occasional birdcall and the rustling of the breeze in the evergreens. "I don't hear anything."
"There's somebody up there — hiding in the bushes." His face was curiously intent. "Two people. I can hear them breathing. Let's go back."
She opened her mouth to scoff and shut it again, with a snap. He had heard the riot last night before she had. Was this another manifestation of Charlie's differences or was he just hearing things?
She didn't have time to wonder. As she started to turn at the urging of Charlie's insistent hand, two men in brand new but mismatched clothing, stepped onto the path.
Judging by the types and condition of their clothing, she and Charlie were facing a pair of looters. One held a tire iron and the other hefted what looked like an ancient battleaxe. The only thing Lois could think of was that it must have come from someone's private collection of antiques, or possibly a museum. In any case, the men were advancing toward the two of them with a purposeful stride. Charlie shoved her behind him.
"We don't want any trouble," he began.
The man with the battleaxe grinned, showing a gap where one of his front teeth should have been. "That's too bad," he said. "'Cause trouble wants you. Gimme your wallets!"
"I don't have a wallet," Charlie said.
Lois said nothing. She had no intention of letting this pair have any clue that she might be more of a threat than she looked. As she had last night, she kicked off her high heels and let her handbag slide to the ground. She needed to be able to move freely and that didn't include teetering around unsteadily in a pair of shoes highly unsuited for the purpose. She made a promise to herself, however, that after this, until the current situation was past — if it ever was — she was not going walking in the open again, even with Charlie. As soon as they got back to the Planet, she was going to drive the Cherokee to the nearest gas station to fill the tank. And, she was going to change to flat shoes — the kind with leather soles. Bare feet weren't nearly as effective if you had to kick someone. Too many persons were taking advantage of the current lack of adequate police presence for ordinary, law-abiding people to be out alone.
The man with the tire iron was moving right, circling to come at them from the side, while Battleaxe came straight at Charlie, his weapon poised. Lois waited, her knees slightly bent. The last thing she needed was for Tire Iron to hit Charlie while he was trying to deal with Battleaxe.
Sure enough, the two of them charged, together. Battleaxe leaped forward with a yell that would have done credit to any Viking warrior of old, swinging his weapon with the obvious intention of taking Charlie in the head, while Tire Iron lunged at him from the side. Lois didn't even have time to think. The training acquired in Tai Kwan Do class took over. She ducked low, caught the arm of the man swinging the tire iron and yanked it forward, at the same instant driving her hip into his thighs. It was one of the very elementary throws that had been taught in her martial arts classes, but it worked like a charm. Tire Iron went over her body with a yell of surprise and panic, to land hard on the path, flat on his back, with enough force to drive the air from his lungs. Behind her, she heard a clang and a flurry of motion. She yanked the tire iron from her attacker's suddenly nerveless fingers and spun around, fully expecting to see Battleaxe coming at her.
But he wasn't. The ancient weapon was lying on the ground, its metal blade shattered in half a dozen pieces, and the man who had wielded it was fleeing from the scene as fast as his legs would carry him.
"Are you all right?" Charlie asked.
"Am *I* all right!" Lois burst out. "Are *you* all right? What happened?"
Charlie rubbed his forehead tentatively and glanced at the ruined weapon. "I'm not sure, but I don't seem to be hurt. The axe broke. He hit me on the forehead but he must have got me with the flat of the blade instead of the edge. That was a close call, though."
Tire Iron was coughing, hunched on the ground and trying to regain his breath. Lois took a step toward him, brandishing the tire iron. "Get out of here!" she said, menacingly.
Unwilling to deal with superior force, the man hoisted himself unsteadily to his feet and staggered away, still coughing. Lois watched him go, not without a certain amount of regret. It would have been nice to hand him over to the police, but they didn't have any transportation to take the guy in, and the police were far too occupied with the current emergency to have time for lesser problems, anyway. After a moment, she turned back to Charlie and the broken battleaxe.
"Come on," she said, her voice beginning to shake. "Let's get out of here."
"You better get your shoes," Charlie said. "You'll ruin your nylons."
"I think they're already ruined," Lois muttered, stooping to retrieve the articles. Charlie gave her a hand for balance while she slipped the shoes back on, and as she straightened up, he picked up her handbag.
"Thanks." She regarded the tire iron thoughtfully. "You know, I think I'll hang onto this until we're out of the park. You never know when you might need it, now."
"That's for sure," Charlie said, with surprising vehemence. "You were great, Lois."
"I told you last night that I studied karate," she reminded him. "In my job, it's turned out to be a pretty handy thing to know, every now and then."
"I can see that," he said, admiringly. "I'm impressed."
"Thanks." She glanced around. "Let's get out in the open again. I won't feel safe until I can see everything around me."
"I'll go along with that," Charlie said. "Come on."
They walked along in silence, each alert for trouble, but the incident had given Lois considerable new fodder for consideration.
Charlie thought Battleaxe had hit him with the flat of the blade but before she had turned to deal with Tire Iron, she had seen the thing coming straight for his head, edge- first. The axe had hit him and shattered into fragments, leaving him unscathed. Just as the knife last night hadn't cut him and the razor had broken when he tried to shave, the battleaxe had come away second best. Charlie couldn't be hurt — at least, not by any ordinary weapon.
There was no longer any possibility that this was all a figment of her imagination. Whatever Charlie might be, he wasn't an ordinary man.
So, if he wasn't an ordinary man, what was he?
Lois wasn't sure what she expected when they reached the end of the parkland and emerged onto the street again. The Daily Planet was only a few minutes' brisk walk away but the sidewalk, usually swarming with people late in the afternoon, was almost deserted.
"It's like a ghost town," she murmured.
Charlie didn't answer but she saw that he was biting his lip. Determinedly, she started toward the Planet with a businesslike stride. "The first thing we're going to do is gas up the Jeep," she said. "Then we're going to head for the airfield. We need to find out who you are."
"Does it matter?" he asked. "I don't see why I should be so important, with all the rest that's happening."
"Yes, it's important," Lois said. "If you have family, they're probably worried sick about you. They'll probably need you, too, if that thing hits us. It's going to kill an awful lot of people and make it hard for everyone who survives to get by afterwards." She nearly blurted out the rest, but at the last minute decided not to. If he thought she was crazy, it wouldn't help the situation. "If you have a wife, or kids — or even just parents — they'll want to know that you're alive."
"I know," he said. "But the Asgard rocket will get it — I'm sure of that." He said it as if he was trying to reassure himself as much as her.
"I hope you're right," she said. "The sheet they handed out to us at the press conference yesterday said that they're launching it tomorrow afternoon. It should intercept Nightfall inside the moon's orbit. If it misses, we'll only have a few hours to wait."
"It won't miss," Charlie said.
"I hope not." Lois waited for the WALK signal and stepped off the curb.
"Well, they program trajectories for the Mars probes and so forth," Charlie pointed out. "They've got to be pretty accurate or the probes would never get where they're supposed to."
"True, but do you remember the Mars probe that they lost because one programmer used English measurements and the other used metric?"
"They *did*?" Charlie looked appalled.
"They sure did. People make mistakes — especially when they're under a lot of stress. I just hope no one makes any mistakes this time. They've only got one shot."
She watched him process that and for a moment, a qualm assaulted her. If Charlie had come to save them and he'd lost his ship, somehow, all she was doing was upsetting him unnecessarily. But, she reminded herself, there had been no sign of a ship in the crater. Maybe he'd bailed out, or something. And even if this was somehow all her imagination, the rest of what she said was true. If Charlie had a family, they had to be going crazy wondering where he was and what had happened to him. Besides, he seemed to be awfully sure, all of a sudden, that the Asgard rocket would save them. If his memory was gone because he was afraid of Nightfall, he might be repressing who and what he was so he wouldn't have to deal with the huge asteroid. She didn't know much about psychology. She'd only taken one semester of it in college to fill in credits in some category or other, but it seemed to make sense. Maybe if he weren't so sure about the success of the Asgard rocket, he'd be more likely to remember something. At least, she hoped so.
They continued on toward the Planet, walking briskly. Not many cars were on the street. Lois had never seen downtown Metropolis so empty. The security guard in the lobby gave her a hard look as she and Charlie entered via the revolving door and then relaxed. "Oh, hello, Ms. Lane. Mr. White will be glad to know you're back. He's had me watching for you."
"Perry was worried about me?" Lois asked.
"Well, sure. There was a riot over on fifth and —"
"Yeah, we heard it," Lois said. "We also almost got mugged in the park, but Charlie chased off the guy with the battleaxe."
The guard did a double take. "Did you say a battleaxe?"
Lois nodded. "I've had enough close calls for one day. Charlie and I are going to get my car and drive over to the Metro Airfield. Could you tell Perry for me, Bill?"
"Sure, Ms. Lane." The man shook his head. "Things are getting worse by the hour out there."
"Tell me about it. We should be back in a couple of hours. Come on, Charlie."
The gas station where she usually filled up the Jeep was closed and so was its competitor directly across the street. It took nearly half an hour to locate an open station, a small, shabby independent one, several miles from the airfield. Lois glanced at the rates and her jaw almost dropped. "That's highway robbery!"
Charlie shrugged. "I guess the owner's charging what the market will pay. He's kind of got us over a barrel."
"Yeah, well, if the Asgard rocket succeeds, I'm writing an expose of this place," Lois muttered, darkly. She pulled up to a pump. "Talk about price gouging!"
However, since the Cherokee was more than three-quarters empty, she filled the tank and paid the staggering price demanded by the owner. They turned out onto the street again and Lois switched on the radio.
Radio LNN was on, reporting the latest on the Nightfall Asteroid and the progress with the Asgard rocket. It was all ready to go, according to EPRAD. All that was needed was their launch window, which was scheduled for approximately eighteen hours from now. Professor Daitch, the head astronomer for the space agency, expressed confidence in the prospects for a successful resolution to the current difficulty.
"'Difficulty'!" Lois snorted. "They talk about it as if some general misplaced his dress uniform! The whole world is at stake here!"
"I hope he's right, though," Charlie said. He sounded less sure of himself, now than he had a short time ago. "If the asteroid hits, what's happened today will be nothing to what it's like afterwards. It's just *got* to work!"
"That's for sure," Lois said. She glanced around as they approached the entrance to the parkway. "I've never seen the streets so empty. Everyone must be home, watching the television for news bulletins or something."
"I guess most people figure that if the end of the world is coming, they'd rather be with their families," Charlie said.
"Most would," Lois said.
"But, how about you?" Charlie asked, clearly concerned. "You're spending all your time trying to help me. What about your family?"
"You don't want to know about my family," Lois said.
Charlie didn't answer. Lois guided the Jeep onto the parkway entrance.
The parkway was as empty as the surface streets had been. It required no skill at all to merge into traffic; there was no traffic to speak of, at all. Charlie still hadn't spoken.
"Sorry," Lois said, at last, feeling slightly guilty. "My mom and dad are divorced and my sister dropped out of college a few months ago and ran off to California to 'find' herself."
"Oh." Charlie looked a little uncomfortable. "Sorry I asked."
"It's all right," Lois said. "We haven't been a real family for a long time. I'd rather help you than sit around just waiting."
"Well, I appreciate it." Charlie bit his lip. "I have this funny feeling, you know — as if there's something else I should be doing, but I don't know what it is. It's frustrating."
Lois nodded without saying anything. Underneath, she suppressed a small surge of hope. If Charlie's conscience was beginning to prod him, maybe he would overcome whatever was keeping his memory from surfacing. Maybe he would begin to remember. On the other hand, fear was a powerful emotion. If her wild ideas were anywhere near right, it might be that if he regained his memory, he would be driven to act even at the cost of his own life. His subconscious might be trying to prevent that. She wished that she knew more about the subject. All the pop psychology she had absorbed over the years might not be based in reality; on the other hand, if she remembered anything from her psychology class in college, a lot of those theories were really out there too, so maybe not all official psychology was based in reality, either.
The Metro Airfield was actually a private airfield for small planes, set on the outskirts of Metropolis. They left the parkway at Aero Drive and Lois turned onto the narrow, graveled road that led to the north where the field had been built at some distance from housing developments or businesses. This was farmland, and around them were open fields where nothing grew, at least so far. In three or four months, with the coming of spring, they would be carefully cultivated and turning green as tiny plants began to show. Lois had no idea what might be grown here, but Charlie gazed out the window with a certain amount of interest.
"What kind of crops do they plant here?" he inquired.
"I don't know. Luthor Agricultural owns the land," she said. "Lex Luthor is a multi-billionaire who lives in Metropolis. He's supposed to be the second or third richest man in the world and has his finger in all kinds of business. I've been trying to get an interview with him for ages but he dodges personal interviews like poison."
"I guess I can understand that," Charlie said. "Somebody like him would have every journalist or publicity seeker — or just plain con man — after him constantly."
"Oh, I know," Lois said. "Still, it's frustrating. I'm determined to get the first one-on-one interview with him — or I was. If Nightfall hits, it won't matter, anyway."
"Yeah," Charlie said. "I guess things like money won't mean anything if that happens."
They fell silent for a time. Lois had been forced to slow the Cherokee to traverse the gravel road. She glanced at the sinking sun, realizing that they had taken more time than she had expected to find a gas station. It was going to be after dark before she and Charlie got back to Metropolis.
"Where's the air field?" Charlie asked, after a while.
"About ten miles farther down the road, I think," Lois said. "The owner bought land at a distance from any housing so he wouldn't have to deal with irritated neighbors. I interviewed him a few years ago when they put in the airport," she added, by way of explanation. "Eventually, of course, the developers will build houses right up to the edge of his airfield and then the homeowners will start complaining about airport noise, and he'll have to move, but that's a few years away, yet."
"Why would anyone buy a house right next to an airfield?" Charlie asked. "It doesn't seem fair that he'd have to move because people moved in, knowing that the airfield was there first."
"It guess it isn't, really," Lois agreed. "But, since when does that have anything to do with it?"
"I guess not," Charlie said. "Still, it doesn't seem right."
Lois had never previously considered the idea, but had to agree in principle. She had discovered since meeting him that Charlie had a way of looking at things that made her think about them in a way she hadn't before. It was too bad, she thought again, that she hadn't met him sooner. He might have been good for her as a journalist, if nothing else. Coming up with new ways of looking at things was important. As she had been told many times, there were no new stories, only new angles. Being able to look at things from those new angles brought freshness to a journalist's writing. Charlie seemed to have a knack for making her do just that. He would have made a good reporter, she thought, for the second time that day.
It was another fifteen minutes before they saw a sign announcing the Metro Airfield a mile ahead. Lois glanced at Charlie. "Does anything look familiar?"
He shook his head. "I'm afraid not."
"We're probably on the wrong track," Lois said. "Still, since you remember flying, it's something we should check out, anyway. I hope Mac is here."
"Mac Fergusen. He's the owner. There's the turnoff." Lois took the gravel road to the left. A few minutes later, the fence that surrounded the airfield came into view.
The sun was swimming on the horizon, and the sky above it was red with the colors of sunset. Small, fluffy pink and gold clouds speckled the western sky and the landscape around them had a rosy cast. Lois drove through the gate and turned toward the manager's office.
The shades were closed but light leaked around the edges, so someone was probably there — especially since the gate had been open. They pulled to a stop in one of the parking spaces and she cut the engine. "Shall we go?"
Charlie shrugged. "I guess. It doesn't look as if business is very good today."
"Well, let's go see." She opened the door and got out.
The first reaction to Lois's knock on the door of the manager's office was a dead silence. Then, she could hear the sound of footsteps crossing the floor inside. There was a pause. At last, the door opened a few inches and the man she recognized as Mac Fergusen peeked out. "Yeah? Can I help you?"
"I'm Lois Lane, Mr. Fergusen," Lois said, quickly. "I interviewed you for the Daily Planet when you first opened the airfield a couple of years ago."
Slowly, the door opened wider. "I remember," Fergusen said. "How are you, Ms. Lane?" He glanced past her at Charlie. "Who's your friend?"
"We're not sure," Lois said. "Could we come in and explain?"
Fergusen hesitated. "I guess. I haven't had any real customers all day — just a couple of weirdoes wantin' to skywrite stuff about the end of the world. None o' my skywritin' pilots showed up for work today, though. This business with the asteroid is making people crazy, I think." He stood back and held the door open. "C'mon in."
Lois entered the cluttered little office with Charlie on her heels. Fergusen waved to a couple of chairs with one hand and the coffee machine with the other. "Help yourselves if you want some coffee. What can I do for you?"
"Well, you were kind of a long shot," Lois admitted. "This is Charlie — at least we're calling him that for lack of anything better. Did you read the Daily Planet today?"
Fergusen nodded. "Yeah, I picked one up on the way here, this morning. Why?"
"Well, Charlie is the man I found in the crater the fireball made in Centennial Park. He can't remember who he is, but he says he remembers flying. I thought he might be a pilot or something. We came out here to see if somebody might recognize him."
"Hmm." Mac Fergusen surveyed Charlie thoughtfully. "Can't say as I do…say, you know who you look like?"
Charlie shook his head. "No."
"That was a dumb question, wasn't it?" Mac grinned and smacked his forehead lightly with one hand. "About four months ago, we had a plane nearly crash here — one of those private jets, you know? The whole thing was as close to a miracle as I ever hope to see. Lightning hit the plane and the pilot had to bring it in without any landing gear. Somehow, he managed to land without a scratch, even though the runway was too short for a jet. Nobody here saw it until it was practically on the ground, 'cause it was out on the farthest runway, and the guy's radio was knocked out, too. He said it seemed like he lost control of the thing the last few minutes, as if some kind of unknown force had taken over from the outside. Everybody figured the pilot must have landed the plane by pure instinct. Anyway, there was this guy who showed up and hauled out the passengers while the crew was putting out the engine fire. Nobody could find him later but I got a good look at him when he handed this little kid down to me — daughter of the plane's owner, it turned out. I remembered him later, 'cause of the weirdness of the whole thing and the way he just appeared outta nowhere and then disappeared later without a trace. It was in your paper, Ms. Lane."
Lois vaguely remembered the incident. She hadn't paid much attention to it because by the time the story was told, the excitement was over. The Hollywood producer who owned the plane had issued a short statement and ducked the media, of course, and the whole incident had been quickly overshadowed by other news. "And Charlie looks like this person?"
"Kind of," Mac said. "He wore glasses, though — a pair of horn-rimmed glasses — and his hair was a little longer in the back. I came face to face with him for just a minute. Then later, when they were tryin' to find him to thank him, he'd disappeared."
"But you don't have any idea who he was?" Lois asked.
Mac shook his head. "I'm afraid not. Your friend here sort of looks like him, except for the hair and the glasses. And the five o'clock shadow, of course." He glanced at Charlie. "You don't wear glasses, do you?"
Charlie shrugged. "I don't think so. I seem to see all right without glasses."
"Guess you're not the same guy, then." Mac gave an eloquent shrug. "Sorry I can't help you, Ms. Lane."
Lois sighed. "Well, it was a shot. Would you mind showing Charlie what the inside of a cockpit looks like—just to see if he recognizes anything?"
"Sure. No problem." Mac set down his coffee cup. "I've got one in for repairs in the maintenance shed. Follow me."
The sun was down by the time they returned to the Jeep. Mac Fergusen waved goodbye to them in a friendly fashion and followed them out to lock the airfield's gate behind them. Lois glanced at the fading colors of the sunset and switched on her headlights. "It's going to be dark before we get back to the parkway."
"We probably shouldn't have come," Charlie said. "We didn't find anything out."
"It was worth the shot," Lois said, noncommittally. "Even if you didn't recognize anything, it doesn't mean you're not a pilot. It could mean that you don't remember." She didn't elaborate on her other thoughts. The story Mac had told about the unidentified man who looked like Charlie stuck in her mind. Was it possible? But if the stranger had been Charlie, then he'd been here four months ago. At the same time, a seeming miracle had occurred. It was something to think about. How could the pilot have landed a plane successfully on a runway that was too short for a jet — a jet with no landing gear, she reminded herself — with no more damage than had already been done by the lightning strike? On the face of it, it was impossible. But, then, so were a lot of things that had happened in the past twenty-four hours, ever since she'd met Charlie. Somehow, she was sure that the mystery man had been her new friend and that he'd also been responsible for saving that plane. How he might have done it, she didn't know but if he had, it would be consistent with the other things she'd seen today. Did Charlie have some kind of invisible ship or something? Had he grabbed the plane with tractor beams like on Star Trek? Or was he really an angel, after all? Did an angel grow a beard?
When she got back to the Planet, as soon as she could get hold of Jimmy, she was going to have him run a computer search of strange happenings like this one. If Charlie had been around for very long, it might explain some otherwise unexplainable things. She was going to need to gather a lot of evidence if she was going to convince Charlie, but if she could bring back his memory, it might be worth it.
"Um…Lois?" Charlie's voice interrupted the stream of thoughts. "Aren't your headlights supposed to be brighter than that?"
The question brought her attention to the gravel road in front of them. Charlie was right. Her headlights were dim and getting dimmer, and on her dashboard, one of the idiot lights was blinking warningly. Experimentally, she turned them off and back on again, but they were no brighter than before. Flipping on the high beams didn't help. The high lights were dim and caused her engine to sputter alarmingly.
"Better stop a minute," Charlie said. "It looks like you have a battery problem."
The advice was unnecessary. Like snapping a switch, her engine went silent and the headlights faded out.
"Oh, great," Lois said. "Now, what do we do?"
She guided the rolling vehicle to a stop near the edge of the road, but mindful of the ditches that ran along both sides of the gravel-covered thoroughfare, she didn't dare pull too far to the right. The brakes and power steering were sluggish without the help of the engine, but she wrestled the suddenly clumsy vehicle to a safe stop, set the parking brake and automatically turned off the ignition. For a moment, neither of them said anything but Lois was thinking a number of things, none of them pleasant.
They were stuck out in the middle of nowhere. The airfield was ten or fifteen miles behind them and besides, it was closed by now. Mac Ferguson had been closing up when they left. The city was at least as far away, and she had no way to call for help — even if the condition of the jammed telephone lines were, by some miracle, kind enough to let a call through. And, it was distinctly dark. Only the slightest trace of the colors of sunset remained in the western sky. She had forgotten how very dark the night was, away from the city lights.
Charlie's face was only dimly visible beside her. He had turned toward her, and she could see his eyes glowing faintly in the darkness.
"I don't suppose," he said, "that you carry a cellular phone."
Lois shook her head and then realized he probably couldn't see it. "No. Perry's been trying to get approval for the Planet to supply cell phones for its reporters but so far, he hasn't been able to talk them into it. All I have is a pager. Besides, even if I did, we probably couldn't get the call through. All the lines have been jammed ever since people found out about the asteroid."
"You're probably right. Do you know of any gas stations around here? I could probably hike over and get some help."
"I think the nearest place is the airfield," Lois said, unhappily. "There might be a gas station along the parkway, somewhere, but I don't know where."
"And the parkway's a good distance, too," Charlie said. She saw him turn to look back at the dark road that stretched behind them. "We better get this thing off the road. I'd hate to have somebody run into us in the dark."
"I couldn't pull any farther right," Lois said. "There's a ditch over there."
"I know. But there's a place right there about thirty feet ahead of us where the shoulder's pretty wide." She could see his dim figure raise an arm to point at some spot in the darkness, well beyond her range of vision. "See what I mean? If I can push the car to that, at least we won't risk somebody crashing into us."
"Are you sure? I can't see a thing."
"You can't?" Charlie was clearly surprised. "It's not that dark. There's plenty of starlight. The moon should be up pretty soon, too."
"Well, maybe, but I can't see anything," Lois said.
"Maybe you need to eat more carrots," Charlie said. "Look, I'll push the car over there. Just make sure the brake is off and the steering wheel isn't locked. I can steer if I push from the left door side."
Lois nodded and watched as he opened the passenger door. Against the faintly lighter background of the sky, she could see him cross in front of the Jeep and turned the key in the ignition to unlock the steering wheel. It was kind of spooky, she thought as she rolled down the window and watched him approach her side of the car. He seemed bigger than he had by daylight, and she didn't know him very well…but, somehow, she couldn't be afraid of Charlie.
He leaned in the window and grasped the steering wheel with his right hand, bracing his left against the window frame. "You better take off the brake and put it in neutral."
She'd forgotten the brake, she thought. Charlie must indeed have good night sight to have been able to see that in the darkness of the car's interior. At once she shifted into neutral and released the emergency brake.
The Jeep started to roll backward. They were on a slight incline, she realized, stepping on the foot brake. Charlie was never going to be able to push her heavy SUV thirty feet forward to the spot he'd described. She opened her mouth to say so when Charlie threw his weight into the job and to her surprise, she felt the Cherokee begin to move.
Belatedly, she removed her foot from the brake, watching him alertly, now. The Jeep rolled forward easily and Charlie didn't even seem to be working particularly hard as he pushed it up the slight incline toward the spot he had chosen.
Surreptitiously, Lois put her foot back on the brake. Charlie didn't seem to notice. The Cherokee continued it's steady progress without the slightest change in speed.
Feeling slightly ashamed of herself, she removed her foot from the brake pedal. Finally, Charlie guided the vehicle off the gravel road, onto the grass of the shoulder, and stopped.
"You can put on the brake," he said.
Quickly, Lois put the Cherokee in "park" and pulled the emergency brake. Charlie, she noted, wasn't even breathing hard.
"That was amazing," she said.
"The way you did that. This isn't exactly a light car. You must be a lot stronger than you look."
"Maybe I work out," he said, without much interest. "Why don't you pop the hood? I'd like to take a look and see if I can figure out what's wrong."
"Okay." She obeyed and reached across to open the glove compartment. "Here's the flashlight."
"That's okay," he said. "It's light enough without it." He walked around to the front of the Cherokee and raised the hood. Lois opened the door and got out. She'd never seen a man repair an engine in near pitch-blackness. This was something she wanted to watch.
It was so dark under the hood of the Jeep that she could barely see the outline of his profile as he bent over the engine. Could his eyes possibly be *that* good? Could anyone's? Even cats didn't have that kind of sight in the dark — did they?
"I think I see the problem," Charlie said, after a moment.
"What is it?"
"It looks to me like the belt to your alternator must have broken. It's gone. After that happened, your battery wasn't being charged anymore and when you used up its charge, that was it. Once you get a new alternator belt and charge the battery, your car should be all right."
"Gee, that's a lot of comfort," Lois said, unable to suppress a touch of sarcasm. "Where am I going to find an alternator belt in the middle of nowhere at this hour?"
"Well," Charlie said, uncertainly, "we could walk up the road and hope there's a gas station somewhere around."
"There probably is — somewhere," Lois said, relenting. "I don't know about you, though, but I'm not about to set off blindly in the dark, looking for a gas station that may be miles away. Especially now."
"Yeah, I guess you have a point," Charlie said. "Well, if we stay here, I guess we'll probably be okay until morning — and it's always possible there'll be a police patrol around here sometime during the night."
"In this place?" Lois said. "While they're dealing with riots and end-of-the-world nuts and everything? I think this area is probably pretty low on their list of priorities."
"You're probably right," Charlie agreed. "I'm sorry, Lois."
Immediately, she felt that touch of guilt again. The guy was only trying to help, after all. She didn't stop to wonder why she felt guilty, when any other guy, except possibly her boss, would have been fair game for a dose of withering scorn. Mad Dog Lane, as she had heard some of her co-workers call her when they thought she wasn't listening, normally had little use for men in general and none at all if one of them was foolish enough to make useless suggestions of any kind in her presence.
"It's okay, Charlie. It's not your fault." She moved back while he slammed the hood shut. "I guess we should get back in the car. I'm cold."
It was hardly warmer in the Jeep. Without the engine to operate the heater, it was bound to get even colder by morning and her jacket wasn't big enough to act as much of a blanket. All the same, she buttoned it up to her chin and folded her arms over her chest.
"Are you still cold?" Charlie asked.
"A little," Lois said. Her feet, attired only in nylons and high-heeled shoes were distinctly chilly.
Charlie turned to look into the back of the Cherokee. "You don't keep a car blanket in here, by any chance, do you?"
She shook her head, figuring that he'd be able to see her motion and wrapped her arms around her ribcage. "Aren't you cold?"
It figured, she thought. "Charlie, don't you think that's a little strange?"
"It's winter. You're running around without even a jacket and you aren't cold."
"I hadn't thought about it. Why?"
"Because you should be cold. Anyone else would be."
Out of the dark, his voice sounded genuinely puzzled. "I don't understand."
She laughed a little. "I don't either, really, but there's something different about you. I've been noticing ever since last night."
"What do you mean?"
"Well — to start with, where I found you in the crater. The ground was *hot* — even where you were lying. I found those glasses right where I saw you. The frames were completely melted. You should have been burned at least a little and you weren't even singed, even though your clothes were completely burned off. Do you have any explanation for that?"
"Um — dumb luck?" He sounded slightly embarrassed.
"I don't think so, but even if it was, a few minutes later when those two muggers came after us, you grabbed one man's knife by the blade and broke it. You weren't even cut. Do you have any idea why?"
"The next day — in the restaurant — I noticed something else. The coffee was steaming. I touched your cup and it was really hot. But you didn't feel it."
He looked puzzled. "Yes, I did. It just wasn't that hot."
"You mean, it didn't feel that hot to *you*. There's a difference."
He frowned at her. "You're saying I'm somehow immune to the heat?"
"I'm not sure. But it might explain how you were lying in that burning crater and didn't even pick up a slight scorch — even though your clothes evidently burned off." She shrugged. "I know it sounds really strange — impossible, really. But it would sure make sense of all the contradictions."
"But it's not possible," he said, patiently. "How could I be immune to fire — or heat?"
"I have no idea," she said, honestly. "But it wasn't just that."
"There's more?" He sounded slightly amused.
"Yes," Lois said, determinedly. "There is. When I fell off the footstool at my apartment — you heard me scream and were there to catch me. Charlie, it was barely a second or so after I screamed that you got there. You couldn't have moved that fast if you were an ordinary guy, no matter how hard you tried."
He didn't answer. Lois plowed on. "Then, in the park — I saw that guy swinging the battleaxe at your head, edge-on. You should have been killed but instead, the axe shattered."
"And just now, there were two other things. You can see clearly enough in the dark that you could figure out what was wrong with the Jeep — but it's pitch black under the hood. There's nothing wrong with my eyes and I couldn't see a thing."
"And the last thing?" His voice sounded subdued.
"You pushed my Jeep uphill for at least thirty feet, all by yourself. Nobody is that strong — except you."
"It wasn't that heavy," he protested weakly.
"Take it from me, it is. This is not some small, foreign car — it's an SUV and it's pretty solid. You're a lot stronger than an ordinary man, Charlie. And now, of course, you're not a bit cold, and believe me, I am. It's probably about thirty-five or forty degrees out there, and not much more in here. My feet are freezing." She reached out to touch his arm. "Charlie, there's something special about you. I don't understand it but there is. I might be mistaken about one or two things but not all of them."
For at least two or three minutes, he didn't answer but finally, he spoke. "What do you think it is?"
"I don't know." She answered honestly. "When we get back to civilization, I'd like to test it, though."
"Hey, I'm not going to stick my finger into boiling water just to see if it hurts," he said, only half-humorously.
"I think we can run a test without going that far," she said. "Charlie, I don't think it's just temperature, either. I don't think that you can be hurt — at least by ordinary means. Something pretty horrific must have happened to you to make you lose your memory like this."
He didn't answer at once and more seconds rolled by.
"What do you think it was?" he asked, at last.
"Honestly? I think it had something to do with the fireball."
"I don't know. I've got some pretty wild theories."
"They can't be any wilder than this thing about me." His voice still sounded subdued. "If you're right, I'm some kind of freak. Maybe I should join a circus, somewhere. I'd be a sensation as 'the fireproof man'."
"Don't be silly!" she said, sharply. "You're no freak. If anything, you're a miracle."
"I don't know about that. A man who can't be hurt, who's faster than a bullet and strong as a bull sounds like a freak to me."
"Charlie, you're no freak!" she said, again. "If nothing else, you're my friend!"
"You're a reporter," he said. "Aren't you going to write about me?"
Lois was appalled. "Charlie, no! I don't betray friends!" She broke off, realizing what she was saying. She was a journalist: she owed it to the public to tell them about somebody like Charlie but betraying a friend went against the grain, no matter how much her journalistic instincts tempted her to tell the world about him. After all, how many real friends did she have?
There was Perry, of course. He was her friend as well as her boss, at least as much as he could be. She had the distinct feeling that he regarded her as the daughter he'd never had and almost treated her as such but could she name any others? There had been Linda King, who had stabbed her in the back over a man. There had been Molly Flynn in college, but they had drifted apart after Molly had begun dating Ryan Wiley, whom Lois couldn't stand. And, of course, there had been Claude, whom she never spoke of to anyone. Did she even have any other real friends except Charlie, a man without his memory, who had somehow become a friend in twenty-four hours without even trying?
"Charlie, I won't write about you if you don't want me to," she said, silently telling temptation to take a hike. "I don't do things like that to my friends. Besides, if the Nightfall Asteroid hits us, there probably won't even be a Daily Planet to publish a story about you or anything else." She reached out and found his hand. "I promise. Whatever we find out about you is safe with me."
He squeezed her hand gently. "Thank you."
Silence descended on the Cherokee. It was getting colder, and she felt herself starting to shiver. Lois pulled her jacket more tightly around her shoulders and clenched her teeth to stop them from chattering.
Quite suddenly, Charlie spoke. "Lois, you're shivering."
"I'm okay," she said, trying to keep the quiver out of her voice.
"No, you're not. You're cold, even if I'm not. Look, I promise I won't try anything. Climb over here. If you huddle up against me, it'll help keep you warm."
She hesitated, but the shivering was getting more intense every moment. Slowly, she obeyed. "You promise — no funny business?"
"You have my word," Charlie said, his voice sounding both solemn and conversely amused at the same time. "No funny business."
"Well…okay." Avoiding the gearshift, she slid over into the passenger seat. It was definitely a cozy arrangement, she thought. The Cherokee's seats were roomy but with both of them, there wasn't much space left to spare. He turned slightly in the seat so she could lean against his chest and cautiously put his arms around her.
"Is this better?"
"Y-yes." Charlie's body felt deliciously warm. She could feel the trembling begin to abate almost at once.
"Why don't you take off your jacket and put it over yourself," he suggested. "If you lean against me, you should be okay."
After a moment's consideration, she obeyed. Charlie put his arms back around her, over the top of the jacket. "How's that?"
"You're nice and warm," she said. "But if you ever tell anybody about this —"
"My lips are sealed." His voice held that amused note again.
Surprisingly, Lois felt herself relaxing, which was a puzzle in itself. If anything, she should be alert, expecting any moment to have to fight off some kind of advance — but she trusted Charlie, she realized with a touch of amazement. It was a trust that had been growing since she had met him. There wasn't anything logical about it, but she knew with some instinct that went deeper than reason that she was safe with him. His shoulder made a perfect resting place for her head and she leaned back against him, feeling the beating of his heart through the thin cotton of the shirt. Was she wrong, or was his heart rate faster than it should be?
She couldn't tell. His body heat enveloped her like a warm, comfortable cocoon.
"So," Charlie said, "do you have any more theories about me?"
"I don't know," she said. "Just some wild speculation, really."
"What kind of speculation?"
"You'd think I was crazy," she said. "Even I'm wondering if I'm a little crazy, to tell you the truth. It just seems more than a little coincidental that someone like you should show up just now in such a strange way."
"You think I'm here because of Nightfall or something?" he asked.
"Well, why not?"
"Well — you're right. It does seem pretty crazy," he agreed. "On the other hand, if you're right about the other stuff, and something horrific did happen to make me forget… She felt him shrug. "Maybe in the morning this is going to seem really silly, but if you're not dreaming about all this — well, maybe we can find out. If I can just remember, maybe it'll all make sense."
Lois glanced at her watch. In the darkness, the numbers were invisible. "Can you see the time?" she asked, lifting her wrist so he could read the numbers.
"Yeah. It's nine forty-two," he said. "We've been stalled out here for nearly two hours."
"Funny, it doesn't seem that long." Lois yawned. "It feels later though."
"Maybe because you're tired," Charlie said. "From the way you were tossing and turning in Mr. White's office, I don't think you slept that well, last night."
"How did you know that?" Lois asked.
"Um — I heard you," he admitted.
Silence for a moment. "I think I rest my case," Lois said, finally.
"Yeah, it does seem like it," he said, slowly. "If you're right…" He broke off. "Okay, what else have you been thinking?"
Lois hesitated. "Um…well, this is going to seem really out there," she said after a moment. "Charlie, I think you *were* the guy Mac was talking about. I think those were your glasses I found in the fireball crater. And I think you had something to do with saving that plane."
"How could I have done that?" he asked.
"I don't know, but my instinct says I'm right. And if you were him, and if you did, maybe you're supposed to help save us from Nightfall, too. But don't ask me how, at least not right now. I haven't worked that out yet."
"I'll bet," Charlie said. "I don't think anybody could."
"I told you it sounded crazy. Let's shelve that part right now. If we can get you to remember, maybe it'll all straighten out on its own."
"I think you're investing too much hope in me," Charlie said. "But —" He paused long enough that she thought he wasn't going to complete the sentence. "Still, I have to admit, you're probably right about the other stuff — about me, that is. And if you are, there's plenty here that neither of us understands. Where did I come from? Mars or something?"
"I don't know," she said.
"That was meant to be a joke," he said, reprovingly.
"Well, partly." He blew out his breath. "I think we've speculated enough tonight, don't you?"
"Probably." She surprised herself by yawning.
"Look, why don't you try to get some sleep," he said. "I'll stay awake. If a highway patrolman comes by, or if anyone shows up that can help us, I'll wake you. Okay?"
Reluctantly, she acknowledged that he was probably right. Fatigue was beginning to catch up with her. "You don't think I'm crazy?"
She heard the amusement in his voice, coupled with uncertainty. "I think you're grasping at straws, but I don't blame you a bit. In any case, there isn't much we can do until it gets light."
Lois yawned again, nearly dislocating her jaw. Charlie laughed softly. "Go to sleep if you can. I already promised you there wouldn't be any funny stuff."
"It's not the funny stuff that worries me," she said, breaking off to yawn a third time. "I trust you, Charlie."
He pulled the jacket around her a little more tightly. "I'm glad. Good night, Lois."
"Lois," Charlie's voice said, "wake up. Somebody's coming."
Lois opened her eyes and blinked blearily at the inside of her Cherokee. She was half-sitting in the passenger seat, reclining against Charlie's broad chest with her feet resting on the driver's seat. Her jacket was spread across her upper body and Charlie's T-shirt covered her legs and feet. The windshield of the Jeep was coated with frost and through the driver's window, she could see the glitter of snowflakes drifting past, colored pink by the sunrise. Sometime during the night, it had begun to snow very lightly.
"Better wake up," Charlie repeated. "Somebody's coming."
Slowly, she straightened up. There was a slight crick in her neck, her mouth tasted funny and she felt thoroughly rumpled. Charlie was reaching for his shirt. Lois dropped her feet to the floor and scooted quickly over the gearshift and into the driver's seat.
Casting a look at her companion as he shook out his T- shirt, she felt even less presentable. It wasn't fair that anyone could look that good first thing in the morning after a night spent in the cramped quarters of a Jeep's front seat. On the other hand, it was obvious that he had been as well behaved as he had promised and sleeping close to him had kept her comfortably warm all night. And, she had to admit that if she was going to spend the night sleeping on a guy's chest, Charlie's was definitely the one she would pick.
"What's the matter?" Charlie asked, starting to pull the shirt over his head. "Do I have a spot on my nose or something?"
"Um…no." Quickly, Lois pulled her riveted gaze from Charlie's bare torso and turned to reach into the back seat for her purse. At least, she would feel a little less rumpled once she'd brushed her hair. A glance at her watch told her that it was a few minutes after six. "You said someone was coming?"
"Yeah." As he spoke, a car came over the small hill ahead of them and Lois recognized the vehicle belonging to her boss.
Perry pulled to a stop on the shoulder of the gravel road, barely six feet from the Jeep and the driver's door popped open almost before the engine died. Lois pushed open her own door and slid out. "Perry! Are we glad to see you!"
Her editor's face looked paler than she had ever seen it. He hurried toward her, feet crunching in the thin layer of snow that coated the dry grass. "Thank God! Lois, are you all right?"
"Yeah." She waved at her stranded vehicle. "We were on our way back when the engine quit and stranded us out here in the middle of nowhere. Charlie says my alternator belt broke."
Charlie opened his door and got out. "We figured we'd better wait 'til the sun came up before we started looking for a gas station."
Perry glanced at him and back at Lois. "You're okay, aren't you?"
"Well," Lois said, "it got a little cold last night, but other than that, we're fine, except that the car won't start."
Perry wiped his face. "When I realized you hadn't come back last night, I was scared, honey. People act like they've gone crazy. There were more riots last night, and someone torched City Hall. With all that, I didn't know what might have happened. The only thing I could think of was to try the airfield, since Bill said that was where you'd gone."
"Oh," Lois said. "Well, it was only car trouble. Just the same, I'm glad you came. It's a long way to town on foot."
Charlie added, "If we could get an alternator belt, I can jump-start the car and it should be fine."
Perry nodded. "That sounds good. The closest open gas station in town is Jilly's Self-Service Station over on Maple. They might have one. I left Jimmy holding down the fort at the office, so since I don't have much to do right now, I'll give you a ride to town and back."
It figured, Lois thought. Jilly's was the gas station that had grossly overcharged her for gas. "Perry, did you see their prices? The only difference between Jilly's and a hold up is the cash register!"
"Lois, gas is at a premium right now. Jilly's is one of twelve stations open in the whole city and there isn't any more being delivered, at least until EPRAD's rocket knocks out Nightfall. It's the same in every other city in the country. Naturally, they're going to raise their prices."
Put that way, it made sense but she didn't have to like it. "Well, I hope they don't charge as much for an alternator belt."
As it turned out, the station only charged 200 percent of the original price. Charlie volunteered to replace the belt and a short time later Lois and Charlie were following Perry's car back toward Metropolis in the Jeep.
"That was easier than I expected," Lois said.
Charlie nodded his agreement. "It was nice of your boss to come looking for you. I doubt most big-city bosses would do the same for one of their employees."
Lois shrugged. "I'm Perry's protegee. I think he sort of regards me as a daughter. Still, if it hadn't been for practically no one showing up for work, he probably wouldn't have. He might have sent Jimmy, though."
"How do you know practically no one came to work?" Charlie asked, mystified.
"He put Jimmy in charge," Lois said, as if that explained it all.
"Jimmy's the office gofer as well as a junior photographer. Bottom man on the office food chain."
"Oh, I see." Charlie nodded. "I figured it might be something like that. He's a nice kid, though."
Lois hadn't thought much about it. "Yeah, he is." She pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. "I told Perry I was going to drop by my apartment to change before I came in to the office. He didn't say so, but I got the impression he thought it was a good idea."
"Well, maybe," Charlie said. "I don't think you look so bad, though. Actually, you look pretty decent, first thing in the morning."
Lois glanced at him. "So do you, except for the beard. You're looking kind of bristly."
"Well, maybe I can get a razor."
"We'll stop and buy you one," Lois said. "Speak up if you see an open drug store." She didn't continue the thought aloud. Here was a chance to see if she was right about why the razor blades had broken on Charlie's beard. She knew she had only partly convinced him, last night. The more solid the evidence she could present to him, the better.
It was incredible, she thought, how things could disintegrate so thoroughly in just a few days. Many stores along the streets of Metropolis were closed, with iron bars in place over their windows and doors. Others were still open as some merchants sought to continue on as they always had but Lois noticed that many of those that were open also had bars over their windows and most of them had security guards present at their doors. Two nights of riots had made their mark.
"There's a drug store," Charlie said.
Potrero's Drugs was a little independent store. Lois had never gone there, preferring to go to the Trexall Drug Store nearest her apartment for her supplies, but Trexall's was closed and had been since yesterday. The little man behind the counter watched the two of them nervously as they entered, and Lois could feel the eyes of the big, beefy security guard at the door following her as she and Charlie walked up and down the aisles, looking for the shaving supplies.
At last, they had acquired a razor, shaving lather and a package of the best blades Lois could find. She added a new pair of nylons to replace the pair she had thoroughly shredded in the past fifteen hours and headed for the cash register to pay for their purchases. Charlie ran a hand over the two days' growth on his chin. "I'll be glad to get this off. It itches."
Lois paid for the purchases and they hurried out to the Cherokee. It was a little after eight and by this time in the morning, Metropolis was usually bustling. Not so, today. The streets were eerily quiet. A short way down the block, a lone figure scurried from the shelter of one doorway to the next: probably one of the homeless drifters that frequented the alleys and back streets of Metropolis, Lois thought. In a way, she felt almost envious. If Nightfall should hit, they didn't have nearly as much to lose.
She glanced at Charlie as he pulled the seat belt over his lap. In the cold light of day, most of her deductions about him seemed pretty wild. Still, there were so many things about this strange man that didn't add up and, anyway, what did she really have to lose by pursuing her theory? It wasn't as if she could do anything to stop Nightfall, after all — unless Charlie was somehow what she was beginning to believe he was.
And what was that — an angel? No, she admitted, reluctantly, probably not. He looked much too solid and, well, very much part of the world. He wasn't something supernatural. But was he of Earth? That was another question. He *looked* like a man, that was certain, and acted like one, too: a very good looking and superior specimen, to be sure, but a man, all the same. But there were the other things that said he wasn't an ordinary man. What was he, then? Was he human at all?
"You're looking at me that way again," Charlie said.
"Like I've grown another head," Charlie said. "What's up?"
"Nothing, really. I was thinking over what we talked about last night. I just wish I could figure you out."
Charlie snorted. "I wish *I* could figure me out. It's funny, though. I fell asleep sometime after two, according to your watch, and I had the weirdest dreams…I guess I was thinking about what you said. I dreamed I was saving that jet."
"Oh? What did you dream?"
"I was flying over the hills west of Metropolis and saw the plane hit by lightning," he said. "It was a Lear jet, painted a funny sky-blue color. It started to fall and I swooped down and caught it. It was pretty strange."
"You caught it? How?"
"With my hands," Charlie said. "I said it was a weird dream. I was flying all by myself. No plane, no helicopter. Not even a flying carpet. And then, after that, I was on a farm, helping with the livestock."
"Now, that's weird," Lois said. "Did anything happen?"
"Yeah. I was a kid, and I kept setting fires."
"Setting fires? You mean, like an arsonist?"
He shook his head. "No, I kept looking at things and everything kept bursting into flame. It was kind of scary. I set the barn on fire and was trying to put it out when I guess I heard Mr. White's car and woke up. It was quite a relief."
"Well, I guess nightmares aren't surprising, considering what's happening," Lois said.
"I guess not," Charlie agreed. "That's probably why everything felt so out of control." He glanced out the window at the nearly empty streets. "You know, this is almost scarier, though. I don't remember much, but I *know* this isn't normal. It's not that I don't remember anything — just anything about myself."
"And there has to be a reason for that," Lois said. "In your dream about being a kid on a farm, was there anything else you remember about it besides the fires?"
He frowned at the dashboard. "I'm not sure. You know how dreams are; everything is kind of jumbled up. I remember thinking that I mustn't let anyone find out what I could do and trying desperately to stop setting fires, but I couldn't. I was in a panic."
"I guess that would make sense," Lois said. She pulled the Cherokee to the side of the street in front of her apartment. "Here we are. Let's go get cleaned up."
The apartment house was again locked when Lois tried the door and she had to unlock it. Mr. Tracewski was nowhere to be seen this time when they entered, but a younger man whom Lois recognized as his oldest son was sitting on a chair in the hall that adjoined the entranceway with a shotgun lying across his knees. It was apparent that the Tracewski family had no intention of allowing intruders into the building without resistance. Mervin Tracewski nodded at Lois and looked Charlie over with a trace of suspicion. "Who is this, Ms. Lane?"
"This is Charlie," Lois explained. "He's…um…I guess you can say he's been my bodyguard for the past day and a half."
Surprisingly, Mervin nodded, apparently accepting the explanation. "All right; you can go in," he told Charlie. "It's a good thing you have a bodyguard, Ms. Lane. People are crazy, you know that? Did you hear they tried to burn City Hall? As if the mayor can do anything about this Nightfall!"
"I heard. How bad was the damage?"
Mervin shrugged. "They didn't say. It was on LNN."
"Oh." Lois started for the elevator. "Well, they're launching the Asgard rocket in a few hours. Keep your fingers crossed."
"It's your turn," Lois said, walking into the living room of her apartment. Charlie had been watching the television, but now he turned around and smiled at her. She had chosen a fresh outfit, including a pair of flat shoes, and felt considerably better after her shower. "How are things going?"
"Well, from what I can see," Charlie said, "the situation seems to be quieting down — at least for now. I think everyone is sort of in a holding pattern, waiting to see if the rocket is going to do the job. LNN reports that even the protests seem to be losing steam."
"I hope so," Lois said. She glanced at his clothing. "We'll have to get you some clean clothes at the Planet. You've been wearing those since night before last."
"I hate to steal anyone's clothes," Charlie objected. "Is there a laundromat around here?"
"There's one in the basement," Lois said. "But you can't wander around with no clothes on while they wash, in spite of the way I found you."
Charlie's blushed. "Don't remind me."
Lois giggled, surprising herself. "It wasn't so bad," she said, with a grin. "Actually, if it hadn't been for the circumstances, I'd probably have enjoyed the view."
"Lo-is!" His face was beet-red and she burst out laughing at his expression.
Her amusement was apparently contagious, for at last, he gave a small, embarrassed grin. Lois waved at the door to her bedroom. "Go on, get yourself a shower and a shave. We have places to go and people to see."
He nodded and vanished quickly through the door. Lois went into her tiny kitchen to retrieve a soda from the refrigerator. A few minutes later, settling down in front of the television, she heard the shower come on.
Charlie had been right, she was thinking a few minutes later. An unnatural calm seemed to have fallen over the entire city. The camera of the LNN newscopter panned over empty streets, where the debris left by the riots of the past two nights attested to the panic that had gripped Metropolis. Smashed windows and overturned cars seemed to be the least of the damage. The scene looked like something out of one of those Armageddon movies that had been so popular for a time.
There were no signs of the panicky men and women now. It was as if they had burned out their fear and anger over the past hours and now waited passively to see if the worst would befall or if the government's nuclear-tipped missile would save them. Scenes from other countries relayed by satellite showed much the same situation. People filled churches, temples and mosques, or congregated in the open, silently waiting to learn the final verdict. Many had fled the cities, although why, she wasn't sure. If the big asteroid hit, a local astronomer informed the host of one of the talk shows, its projected point of impact was somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, but it would cause massive tidal waves and throw enough water vapor into the air to cause major climate change. Lois grimaced and turned off the television. If that happened, she would deal with the situation then — if she survived. There was no point in borrowing trouble.
The shower had gone off while she had been absorbed in the images on the screen. She drank her soda, waiting. Charlie would soon be shaving, and then they would see what happened…
The door to the bedroom opened. Charlie stood there, a towel wrapped snugly around his waist. His face was lathered up and in one hand, he held the razor. "Lois…"
"What's wrong?" she asked, already knowing what the problem was.
"It happened again," he said, holding out the razor. "I just broke two more blades."
Quickly, Lois got to her feet and crossed the room to him. He was right. When she took the razor in her hand and opened it, she could see where the blade had broken unevenly along the edge. Slowly, she lifted a finger to run it across the untouched stubble of his beard.
"Charlie," she said, "it's not the razor — it's you. The blade can't cut your beard."
"I figured that out," he said. "It looks like you were right. I'm injury-proof."
"Almost, anyway," Lois said.
"If a razor can't cut my beard, how the heck do I shave?" he demanded, sounding exasperated. "I was pretty clean- shaven when you found me! If I can't cut this stuff off, I'm going to look like Rip Van Winkle before long! And how about my hair?"
"We'll figure it out," Lois said. "There has to be a way, but we've got more important things to think about for now. Go get dressed. I need to get to the Planet. Besides, I'm just about out of food and I'm starving!"
On the street, half an hour later, Lois looked thoughtfully at her Jeep. "I guess we better take it," she said, at last. "I'm going to need it later, but I hate to waste the gas."
Charlie nodded and without comment, waited while Lois unlocked the door for him. While she started the engine, he flipped up the small panel on the sunshade, revealing the makeup mirror. As he had done several times since he had made the discovery about his beard, he leaned forward, studying the growth.
"It looks just like ordinary hair," he muttered.
"I know," Lois agreed. "Somehow, you're different, Charlie. If you hadn't been, you'd have been dead night before last."
"I know, and I'm grateful," Charlie said, "but how the heck am I going to cut this stuff? I don't like looking like a fugitive from a homeless shelter."
"I don't know, but it's obviously possible. Wherever you're from, you've been around longer than just a few days."
"How do you figure that?"
"Well, I know you aren't sure, but I think you were the guy Mac was talking about. When we get to the office, I'm going to have Jimmy pull up the stuff on that jet and see if there's anything more about it that we haven't heard. If the thing was a Lear jet that happened to be sky blue…"
"I could have read it, somewhere."
"I doubt it," Lois said. "I vaguely remember the incident. I'm pretty sure the Planet was the only paper that got the story; everybody else had to get it from us, and I think it was on something like page ten of the paper. I'm sure I'd have remembered if the article had mentioned the color of the plane."
"Weren't there any pictures?"
Lois shook her head. "The guy's bodyguards wouldn't let anyone near the jet. The owner was Paolo Bertolli."
"The reclusive Hollywood producer?"
"That's the one." She glanced sideways at him. "I'm kind of surprised you even recognize his name. The guy avoids publicity and the press like his life depends on it. All we had were stock pictures to go with the article, which is why mostly nobody remembers it. The only reason it ended up in the paper at all was because it was such an unusual incident."
"Then, how are you going to find out the color of the plane?"
Lois smiled. "You obviously don't know Jimmy. That kid knows computers like you wouldn't believe. He practically makes them sit up and beg."
"That, I'd like to see," Charlie said.
"You will. I've got another idea, too."
"I'll tell you if it pans out," Lois told him turning onto the street where the Daily Planet was located. "Hey, it looks like Winslow's Doughnuts is open! I'm starving!"
The middle-aged woman behind the counter eyed them suspiciously as they entered the shop, but relaxed when she saw Lois. "Oh, hi, Ms. Lane. I was afraid you were some of those hooligans again. What can I do for you?"
"Hi, Roberta," Lois said. "How about two dozen cake doughnuts and two cups of hot coffee?"
"Sure. Coming right up."
"Have you had trouble, here?" Charlie asked.
The woman opened sliding glass doors to one of the display cases and began to remove doughnuts with a pair of tongs. "Some. Last night I thought for sure they were going to break all my windows and trash the place but the police showed up in time, thank goodness."
"I'm sorry," Charlie said. "It must have been frightening."
"You could say that," she said. "I just hope EPRAD is able to stop that thing before it hits us."
"So do I," Lois said.
"I read about the fireball you saw and the guy you found in the crater," the woman said. "Do you think it could have been a piece of the asteroid?"
"I doubt it," Lois said. "How would it have gotten here ahead of the rest of the pieces?"
Roberta appeared to ponder that for a moment. "You're right. I hadn't thought of that. But how about the guy you found in the crater? I don't understand how come he wasn't killed."
"Believe me, Roberta, we'd like to know how it happened, too," Lois said. "This is Charlie, by the way. We're calling him that because we still don't know his real name. I don't suppose you've ever seen him before, have you?"
Roberta's eyes had widened a little, but now she gave Charlie's face a close scrutiny. Finally, she shook her head regretfully. "I'm afraid not. Wish I had, though."
Lois could understand that. "Well, I thought I'd ask." She accepted the box of doughnuts, removed one and took a huge bite. "These are great, Roberta."
The woman smiled. "Thanks."
Lois stuffed the rest of the doughnut into her mouth and wiped her fingers on a paper napkin from the receptacle on the counter. "How much?"
"That'll be seven dollars and fifteen cents."
Lois opened her purse and produced several bills. "Don't forget the coffee."
"Just getting it now." Roberta filled two Styrofoam cups with steaming coffee and capped them. "Be careful with these. I just brewed a fresh pot of coffee and it's pretty hot."
"Just the way I want it," Lois assured her, glancing at Charlie. He responded by reaching for several small containers of half-and-half and three packets of sugar.
Roberta accepted the bills Lois handed her. "I wonder if this is worth it," she remarked as they turned to leave. "If that thing hits us, money won't be worth the paper it's printed on."
"Think positively," Lois said. "That's what I'm doing."
"I guess that's all anyone can do," Roberta said. "I'll see you later…I hope."
Out on the sidewalk again, Lois uncapped her coffee and took a tiny swallow. "Mmm — good. It's pretty hot, though. Try yours. You can put in that other stuff later," she added. "I want to make sure it's as hot as we can get it. Consider it a double check."
"Okay." Charlie had opened his own coffee, and now he took a cautious sip. He frowned and took a healthy swallow. Lois couldn't help wincing a little, knowing how hot the coffee actually was.
"Well?" she asked, already knowing the answer.
He lowered the cup. "All right, you've proved your theory — not that I'm really surprised at this point. It doesn't feel all that hot to me, and I'm not burned as far as I can tell." He dipped a finger into the liquid, letting it remain there for several seconds. "But, what does it mean?"
"It means I wasn't imagining things," Lois said. "Now we know why the fireball didn't burn you. You're fireproof. Here, hold the doughnuts while I unlock the car."
He accepted the box without comment. Lois unlocked his door and went around to open her own. Once in the Jeep, she set her cup in the cup holder and took the doughnut box while Charlie fastened his seatbelt. "Charlie, you grabbed a knife by the blade last night and it didn't cut you."
"Hey, coffee is one thing, but I'm not about to stab myself just to prove that knives can't cut me!" he said, only half-joking.
Lois grinned. "Don't worry." Her smile disappeared. "What's the matter, Charlie?"
"It's just that this is really strange, Lois."
"I know. I meant what I said last night, though. I'm not going to tell anyone. But I'm still wondering why you turned up just now, and why you were *in* that crater the fireball made. I have a feeling that it's not a coincidence."
He opened the sugar packets, poured them into his coffee and followed it with the half-and-half. "Let's see what your friend Jimmy can find," he said. "If he comes up with anything to back up your idea — well, then maybe you're right."
"Fair enough," Lois said. She started the engine and pulled away from the curb. Melting snow sprayed the empty sidewalk behind them.
The newsroom was almost deserted when Lois and Charlie stepped out of the elevator. In his office, Perry was sitting at his desk, apparently absorbed in shuffling through what looked like a stack of cards. Jimmy was perched on the edge of his desk, watching the monitors.
"Jimmy! I need you to find some information for me, as fast as you can!" Lois spoke before the elevator door had even closed behind them. Jimmy jumped and nearly fell off the desk at her near-shout.
"Geez, Lois!" He straightened up. "You scared me!"
"Sorry, but this is important." She descended the stairs with more haste than grace. "I need you to find out about Paolo Bertolli's private jet. What kind is it and what color is it painted?"
"Huh?" Jimmy looked at her oddly. "Are you kidding?"
"Jimmy, it's important. Just find it for me."
Jimmy shrugged. "Sure, if you want it." He took his seat in front of the computer on his desk and rested his fingers on the keyboard. "Why the rush, though? If Nightfall hits, it's not going to matter, anyway."
"You might be surprised about that," she said.
"Never mind. Just find the stuff for me. I'm going to take Charlie down to the lockers for a change of clothes, if Perry asks."
Jimmy gave her a curious look, but nodded. "Sure."
Lois grasped Charlie by the elbow. "Come on. Let's go get you some clean clothes." She started up the ramp with a determined stride. Charlie trotted obediently along, but once in the elevator he raised an eyebrow at her.
"You get kind of intense, you know?"
Lois shrugged. "I have to be. It's how I keep my image."
He surveyed her, thoughtfully. "I suppose. The other night, I heard some of the night staff here call you 'Mad Dog' Lane. You don't seem that way to me."
She laughed shortly and leaned back against the wall of the elevator. "I'm a woman in a field that's predominately male, Charlie. I can't let them see any vulnerabilities or I lose credibility."
"I don't see why. I was reading some of your stuff the night I was here. You're brilliant. I'd think any editor would kill to have you on his staff."
Lois smiled, unexpectedly flattered. "Thanks, Charlie."
"I mean it." Charlie shoved his hands into the pockets of the jeans. "Do you think anyone else would have put together the things you have about me? Even I didn't."
"You didn't have any reason to think what you were doing was unusual," Lois said. "I was in a position to notice things."
"Yeah, but most people wouldn't have," Charlie said.
"Well…maybe. I may still be way off base."
"Maybe. But you've figured out a lot."
She shrugged. "My dad always said I was an unconventional thinker. He wanted me to be a doctor."
"Why didn't you?"
"What? Be a doctor? I didn't want to. I've wanted to be a reporter since third grade. Dad tried to push me into medical school; he said he wouldn't pay for college unless I studied medicine."
"That's ridiculous!" Charlie seemed genuinely horrified. "What kind of parent does that?"
"Mine, evidently. Anyway, I applied for scholarships and went to journalism school. My father finally came around and helped me after the first year when he realized I was going to do things my own way, no matter what." She shrugged. "Somehow, I've always managed to disappoint him."
"Considering what I've seen and heard about you, I'd think he'd be proud of you," Charlie said. "You're a very successful investigative journalist."
"Nothing I ever did was enough," Lois said, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice and at the same time wondering why she felt she could confide in Charlie. Something about him seemed to invite confidences. Maybe it was because he didn't have any expectations. If a man couldn't remember his own past, how could he judge anyone else? "I started out by being the wrong sex, then I wanted to be a reporter rather than a doctor. I still remember coming home with a 98 on my math test in tenth grade. 'Look, Daddy, I got 98 percent!' 'Oh, good, Lois. That leaves two percent for improvement.' I couldn't win. He even made being an 'unconventional thinker' sound inferior. I guess I've been trying to prove to him I was as good as any boy would have been, ever since."
Charlie was frowning. "I don't see why you have to prove anything to anyone. Any man who had a daughter like you would be crazy not to be proud of her. I'd say the problem is his, not yours."
Lois felt her jaw drop. Charlie's unexpected assessment left her momentarily speechless, but she quickly closed her mouth and managed a smile. "Thanks, Charlie."
"I mean it," Charlie said, quietly. "I think I've gotten to know you pretty well in just a couple of days. Considering everything that's happened, I think I was incredibly lucky that it was you who found me." He ran a hand over his chin. "Now, if you can just figure out how I can shave…"
The non sequitur made her laugh. "I'll do my best. First, let's get you some clean clothes, though."
He grinned. "You're the boss."
"Just remember that," she told him with mock-severity.
The elevator slowed to a stop at last and the doors popped open. They stepped out into a section of the building that was completely empty of humanity and almost dark. The lights were off; only the light from the elevator illuminated the hallway with the battered, metal lockers lining the walls. Several doors opened off the hall, dark and unexpectedly spooky. Their footsteps echoed loudly in the nearly empty space and Lois had to suppress a totally irrational sense of nervousness when the door of the elevator closed behind them, leaving the room pitch black.
"Just a minute," Charlie's voice said. She heard his footsteps moving away and then a click. Lights blazed on suddenly, and she lifted a hand to shade her eyes.
"Sorry, I should have warned you," Charlie said.
"That's okay." Lois blinked away the water in her eyes. "At least we can see — although you probably could anyway."
"Not really," Charlie said. "There wasn't any light, but I saw where the switch was before the elevator doors closed. Anyway, what do you want me to wear?"
"I think Eduardo is about your size," she said. "Your shoulders are a lot broader, but you can probably wear his pants, at least. And Pete is fat, and wears a larger shirt, so one of his would probably be big enough for you. Let's see if I can find you some clean underwear. Most people keep a couple of complete clothing changes in their lockers."
"Aren't they locked?" Charlie asked.
"The ones with the valuables are," Lois said, beginning to open the metal doors. "These are just clothes."
Charlie looked slightly uncomfortable as she purposefully proceeded to rifle the lockers. "I hope none of them mind me borrowing their stuff," he said.
"They didn't tell us you couldn't," she said. "It's their own fault if they didn't bother to show up to work. Oh, brother! There's a copy of the Daily Planet — November twelfth, 1989 — all crumpled up on the bottom of the locker. From the grease spots, it looks like somebody used it to wrap food. Yuck! Ah! Here's a package of boxers that hasn't even been opened. They look like they'll fit you, too." She glanced clinically at the jeans he had been wearing since the night before last. "What do you wear — 32's?"
"I guess. That was what Jimmy got me before."
"Well, they should fit, then." She ripped the package open without hesitation and tossed him one of the pairs inside. "Here. You'll look good in black."
Charlie caught the black boxers out of the air. "You're not going to see them on me," he said, firmly. "I'm done with exhibitionism for the rest of my life."
She laughed but didn't answer. "Eduardo's got a pair of blue slacks — and there's a belt." Tossing the items in his direction, she continued with her hunt. "Good grief! I've never seen Pete wear a watermelon-colored shirt before! No wonder he hides it in the back of his locker."
His doubtful look deepened at the sight of the shirt. Lois grinned. "At least you won't need to worry about what Pete will say," she said. "He'd look like a clown in it."
"So will I," Charlie said. "I guess beggars can't be choosers, though."
Lois cocked her head to the side. "You don't have Pete's belly," she said. "I think it'll look good on you. It's your color."
Both his heavy eyebrows flew up and he gave her an incredulous look. "I hope you're kidding."
"Nope. It suits your complexion," she said, tossing the shirt at him. "Why don't you go in there and put it on?"
He regarded the clothing in his hands and finally gave a sigh of resignation. "Pink shirt and blue slacks. At least Jimmy and Mr. White will have something to laugh at. I'll be right back."
He disappeared through the nearest doorway and Lois saw the light come on before the door closed.
Left alone for the moment, she sank down on one of the benches that sat between the lockers. Charlie had surprised her again, there in the elevator. It was obvious he thought a lot of her. His opinion of her father's evaluation of her had made the ancient feeling of inadequacy weaken for the first time in all her twenty-six years.
"Ho-ly heck!" Charlie's shocked exclamation brought her to her feet and halfway to the door of the room where he had gone before she even realized she had moved. Quickly, she flung open the door, hoping she wouldn't catch him in the nude.
"What's the matter? What happened?"
Charlie was standing next to a smoldering bench in front of the wall mirror and the air was heavy with the scent of wood smoke and scorched varnish. He slapped at the smoking wood before he answered and the face he turned toward her was chalk-white. He clapped a hand over his eyes. "Lois, get away from me, quick! I don't want to hurt you!"
"What the devil are you talking about?" Lois demanded. "You're not going to hurt me."
"I set the bench on fire — just by looking at it! Just like in my dream!" There was genuine panic in his voice. "Go back in the other room before I set your clothes on fire or something!"
"All right." She backed out of the room until he was just out of sight. "Calm down, Charlie. What happened?"
She heard him breathe heavily. "Are you out of the room?"
"I'm in the hall. Take a deep breath and tell me what happened."
"Lois, I've got to get away from you! It was just like I dreamed, last night!" His voice was shaking.
"Charlie!" She made her voice sharp. "Get hold of yourself! You just looked at me and you didn't do a bit of damage to me. Whatever you did, it stopped. Take your hand away from your eyes and look around you."
Silence for a count of ten, then she heard another deep, rather shaky breath.
"Are your eyes uncovered?" she demanded.
"Yeah. Don't come in, Lois, please! If it does it again…"
"I won't, for now. Are you setting anything else on fire?"
Another pause. "No."
"All right, now think. What happened?"
"I was looking in the mirror at the outfit," Charlie's voice said. She could hear it shake and heard him working to control the shaking. "I was thinking it didn't look so bad and I looked down at the bench. I thought about the dream last night — you know, the one where I was starting fires with my eyes? — and about how silly it was, and — you know, concentrated on the wood. You know how sometimes you goof around with something you know is impossible?"
"Like the time my sister, Lucy, and I decided to try to bend a spoon like a psychic we saw on TV," Lois said. "I get it. So, what happened then?"
"It worked! The wood started to smoke, and then there was a little flame, and I stopped! I slapped at it with my hand and put it out!"
She heard his voice rising with near panic again. She didn't stop to think how impossible the story was. It was vitally necessary to calm Charlie down right away. Here was absolute proof that he was something very different than a human, and perhaps here for the reason she had hoped. It was all for nothing, however, if she didn't get control of the situation. "Charlie, you had to concentrate on the bench to set it on fire, didn't you? When you stopped, so did the, well, the fire-starting. Didn't it?"
Silence. Then: "Yeah. Yeah, it did."
"In other words, it doesn't happen unless you want it to."
"I guess not — but, Lois, how can I take the chance? I could hurt somebody! I could hurt *you*!"
"Charlie, you've been with me for most of the last thirty- six hours and you haven't hurt me yet, even when you didn't know anything about this ability. I don't think you're going to." Lois drew a deep breath. She had to show him that she believed what she was saying, that she trusted him not to hurt her, and that he could trust himself. If she didn't believe it, he would know. He hadn't hurt her, she reminded herself, firmly. And he wouldn't.
"Charlie, I'm coming in there. You're not going to hurt me. This isn't your dream. It's not out of control. You won't set anything on fire unless you want to."
Lois mustered her nerve, telling herself that she was right because she *had* to be, and stepped forward into the room.
Charlie had turned his back on her and had both hands over his eyes again. Surprisingly, the sight bolstered her slightly flagging courage. He wouldn't hurt her, she told herself, with more conviction. He had control of this — this heat-vision thing, even if he didn't know it. She put a hand on his arm.
"Charlie, take your hands away from your eyes. You don't have to look at me. Just look straight ahead. It'll be all right."
"Charlie, you can control this thing. You *are* controlling it. Just don't look at me if you're afraid." Gently, she tugged at his arm. "Take your hands down."
Very slowly, he obeyed. His eyes were screwed tightly shut.
"Charlie, open your eyes." With an effort, she kept her voice calm. "It's okay. You had to concentrate on the bench to make it burn. It's not going to happen if you don't want it to. Come on, now." Privately, Lois was amazed at the patience she found herself using with Charlie when all her instincts were screaming at her to *make* him open his eyes and demonstrate this incredible ability to her. Charlie was afraid he would hurt her — and there might be something else here, too. Whatever had caused him to forget all these things about himself, it was apparent that it had been something nearly catastrophic. It had scared him so badly that his subconscious mind was trying to protect him by making him forget what he could do. It was very possible that the cause was Nightfall. If it was, then maybe there was something Charlie could do to save them. There were plenty of 'ifs' in that, but she couldn't ignore the slightest chance that it was true.
One thing might be in her favor, though. In spite of the danger, he had tried this on his own, not really believing it would work; but still… Maybe his action meant that something in him was trying to remember, to face whatever it was that had terrified him and finish whatever he had set out to do.
She could hope, anyway. Charlie wasn't a coward, she thought. If there was anything she was sure of, it was that.
"Charlie," she urged again, "open your eyes."
Very slowly, he cracked an eyelid. Nothing happened. Slowly, ever so slowly, he opened one eye and then the other, keeping them focussed on a spot across the room, completely off her.
"See — nothing happened," Lois said. "As long as you don't try to set something on fire, you don't."
"I'm not so sure of that," Charlie said. His voice sounded uncertain. "I'm not going to dare look at anyone."
Lois didn't answer at once. Finally, she said, "Look, let's try to test this out."
"I'm not going to set any fires!"
"Take it easy." Lois waved to the trashcan that stood in one corner. "That's metal; it won't burn. Just hold on a minute."
"What are you going to do?"
"You'll see. Stay right here." Quickly, she retreated to the hallway and hurried to the lockers. A moment later, she was back, the ancient, grease-stained newspaper in her hands. Quickly, she stuffed it into the trashcan.
"Now," she said, "we're going to test your control. I want you to look at the paper in the trashcan. *Don't* try to burn it. Just look at it, okay? Then, when I tell you, I want you to try to set it on fire."
He hesitated. "I don't like this."
"I know." She rested a hand on his arm. "Charlie, I'm just trying to show you that you can control this, just like you've been doing since I met you. Will you try?"
"Well…" He looked doubtfully at the metal receptacle and then at her for just a split instant. "I guess so."
"Good." Lois tugged at his arm. "Come on over here. Now, when I tell you, just look at the newspaper. If anything will burn easily, it's a newspaper, wouldn't you agree?" Inwardly, she was quaking slightly, but what she was saying made sense. She had to convince Charlie that he wasn't a danger to everyone around him.
Lois released his arm and stepped back. "Okay, just *look* at the paper. Don't try to get it to burn."
Silence. Charlie stood perfectly still, staring into the trashcan. After perhaps thirty seconds, she could see him beginning to relax. "It's not burning, is it?"
"You're doing fine," Lois said, quietly. "Just keep looking. You just want to look at it, not do anything to it."
"Still no fire," Lois said, after another minute had gone by. "Would you agree that you don't seem to be setting it on fire by accident?"
Slowly, he nodded and she could hear him release his breath.
"All right," she said. "Now, we're going to see if you can control it when you want to. Do what you did to the bench. Try to get it to burn."
She saw his shoulders stiffen and instantly, flame burst from the trashcan as the paper ignited. Charlie jumped back. "Wow!"
"I'd say so." Lois stepped forward to look at the blazing newspaper. "I think I've proved my point. It only works when you want it to, Charlie. It's under your control. You don't have to be afraid of it."
Charlie looked slowly away from the blazing paper. "Thanks," he said.
"Don't mention it." Lois reached out to take his hand. "I knew you weren't a danger, Charlie."
Charlie gripped her slender fingers in his larger ones. "I don't understand this at all. No one should be able to do this."
"No ordinary man could, that's for sure," Lois corrected him. "I don't know how, Charlie, but you're definitely not ordinary."
"Big news flash there," he said. "But if I'm not an ordinary human, what am I?"
"Something else," Lois said. "Something special." She glanced back at the heavily smoking trashcan as the last remnants of the fire burned itself out.
"'Special'," Charlie repeated. "I don't feel special. Here I am with no memories before I woke up in that crater."
"That may not be quite true," Lois said. "Jimmy may be able to tell us differently."
"Those crazy dreams of mine?" Charlie said. "But, Lois, I couldn't possibly have saved the jet the way I dreamed I did."
Lois shrugged. "Maybe not, but you've got all kinds of strange abilities. Charlie, if you're not an ordinary human, it's possible that you're from somewhere else."
"You mean, like another planet?"
"Maybe. I've never heard of any aliens that were supposed to look like you but I always thought the flying saucer nuts were way off base anyway. How would *you* explain it?"
"I don't know."
"And what was the fireball?"
"I don't know."
"Neither do I," Lois said. "But I think you and the fireball are connected with Nightfall — and maybe the reason it shattered. I think that's why I found you in Centennial Park night before last. I think something about it scared you so badly that your mind is making itself forget who you are and what you can do — because if you remembered you'd have to do something about it."
"How could I have anything to do with it?" he asked.
"I don't know. If you're from another planet, wouldn't you have to have a ship?"
"I guess," Charlie said. "But if there is one, where is it?" He laughed shortly. "I can't believe we're having this conversation."
"Neither can I," Lois admitted. "Look, let's go back up to the newsroom. Maybe Jimmy's got some information for us by this time."
"Lois, I got the stuff you wanted," Jimmy said, as Lois and Charlie walked into the newsroom. "Would you believe the guy's jet is painted sky blue? Now, that's really weird!"
Lois cast a quick look at Charlie. "How about that," she said, quietly. "What kind of jet, Jimmy?"
"Oh, it's a Lear jet, natch. Who would want a sky blue plane?" He glanced up and broke off in surprise at the sight of Charlie's clothing. "Wow! That shirt kind of sticks out! Isn't that Pete's?"
"Yeah," Lois said. "How did you know?"
"His ex-wife gave it to him when they were still married," Jimmy explained. "He was going to burn it, but I guess he forgot."
"In that case, it won't matter if Charlie borrows it," Lois said. "So, Bertolli has a sky blue Lear jet. What do you think of that, Charlie?"
"Interesting," Charlie said. "I guess you were right."
"About Bertolli?" Jimmy said, clearly confused. "Why does it matter?"
"I'm working on an idea," Lois said. "Right now, I need you to do something else for me, Jimmy. I want you to compile a list of every incident in the past — oh, say ten years — where a seeming miracle happened. The kind where people were saved from death or disaster, when there didn't seem to be any possible way out. Highlight the ones involving seemingly supernatural beings that were supposed to have helped. I want as many details as are available." She saw the incredulous expression on his face. "Really, Jimmy, it's important. I've got a theory about what shattered Nightfall, but I need some more information. And no, I don't think it was anything supernatural. Hurry, will you? There isn't much time."
"Sure." Jimmy shrugged and turned back to his computer. "You want the picture of the jet?"
"Did you get one?" Charlie asked, looking surprised.
"Sure." Jimmy tilted his head toward the otherwise empty "out" box on his desk. "Right there."
Charlie reached for it. "Do you mind?"
"Go ahead." Lois added, "Jimmy, did you want a doughnut? I brought them in, but I guess you didn't notice."
"Sure!" The young man's face lit up. "I'm starving!"
That didn't surprise her. Jimmy had not yet gotten past the ravenous appetite of youth. She held out the box. "Here you go. Get the information as soon as you can, would you? They're firing the rocket in just a few hours."
"I know." Jimmy looked momentarily subdued. "If it misses, Nightfall will hit us at about sunset, tomorrow. I hope EPRAD is on the ball."
"All of us do." Lois glanced at Charlie. He was leaning against Cat Grant's desk, studying the computer printout of Bertolli's Lear jet. From the riveted expression on his face, she needed to talk to him. "Charlie?"
"Huh?" He looked up from the paper. "Lois, I've seen this plane before."
Jimmy glanced up. "Maybe you work for the guy."
"I don't think so," Lois said. "I'm pretty sure there's another explanation."
"I think it would be cool to work for a Hollywood producer," Jimmy said. "Even one as weird as Bertolli."
"Jimmy, he doesn't work for Bertolli. Get that stuff I asked you for, will you? It's important." Lois turned to Charlie. "Remember what I said before?"
"Yeah." Charlie was still frowning at the picture. "Maybe you're right. If you aren't, it's a terrific coincidence."
She regarded him with a smile. "So you're starting to believe me, huh?"
"Well, I still think some of it's a bit far out, but let's say, I'm willing to suspend judgement for now."
"I guess that's a step in the right direction," Lois said. She glanced around as Perry opened the door of his office. "How are you doing, Chief?"
Perry shrugged. "Okay. In a holding pattern like everyone else, I guess."
"Yeah." Lois picked up another doughnut and took a bite. "I feel like I should be doing something, but I don't know what."
"I know the feeling," Perry said. "It doesn't seem right to be in the office with nothing to do. Is the hamburger stand on the corner still open?"
"I don't know," Lois said. "Do you want me to get you something?"
"I'd rather you stayed here," Perry said. "Jimmy can go."
"Jimmy's doing some research for me, Chief. Charlie can come with me. We'll be okay."
Perry glanced at Charlie and his eyes widened slightly at the sight of the shirt but he didn't comment. "We — ll…okay, I guess so. But you come right back — and be careful!"
"I will." Lois smiled at him. "What do you want?"
Perry shoved his hands into the pockets of his slacks. "How about a double cheeseburger with all the trimmings, fries, onion rings and one of those big apple tarts for dessert. Oh, yeah. And an extra large chocolate malt."
"Do they let guys with high blood pressure eat that stuff?" Jimmy asked.
His boss glared at him. Jimmy ducked his head.
"Yeah, who cares now?" he said. "It's going to take a miracle to get us out of this one."
Perry pulled his hands out of his pockets. "See this?"
"What is it?" Jimmy asked.
"Baseball card." He held it up. "Ted Williams. Batted a four-oh-six season in 1941. Miracles do happen."
Lois glanced at Charlie. If she was right, he might be the miracle they were looking for — if he regained his memory in time.
Perry took the wallet out of his back pocket and extracted several bills. "Oh, hell, get some for all of us. I'm buying."
"Okay," Lois said. "Come on, Charlie."
By some miracle, the hamburger stand was open. There were even a couple of customers sitting at tables under the umbrellas that shaded the small, open-air eating area. The sun was shining brightly and the only traces of snow left by the overnight storm were a few puddles of dirty water on the sidewalk. While the woman behind the counter filled her order, Lois sat down at one of the tables, looking around at the empty streets.
It was eerie, she thought. By this time on an ordinary day, the streets were teeming with people. Now, only a few persons moved about, many of them simply standing in one spot and looking up at the sky. She resisted the temptation to follow their example. There was nothing to see. Nightfall was still out there, plunging toward Earth at nearly thirty thousand miles per hour but above them, the sky was a clear, crisp blue. The snow of the previous night had melted in the sunshine and the air temperature was probably only a little below freezing. It was a typical day in early December. There was no sign of doomsday…yet.
A police car drew up at the curb. Two men, only one in uniform, climbed out and strode up to the counter. The one in plain clothes glanced at her and raised a hand. "Hello, Lois."
"Hi, Henderson." Lois found herself surprisingly pleased to see a familiar face. "What are you doing here?"
"Keeping an eye on things. Most of the regulars at the Precinct have been on duty for over forty-eight hours. I'm standing in."
Lois nodded. "I'll bet. You look tired, too."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "This Nightfall thing must be getting to you," he remarked. "You haven't insulted me, yet. Yeah, I've been on since last night. Where have you been? I didn't see you covering the riots."
"When you've seen one riot, you've seen them all," Lois said. "Bill, this is Charlie — only that's probably not really his name. He's the guy with amnesia whom I found in the fireball crater night before last. Charlie, this is Inspector Henderson of the Metropolis PD. Charlie's playing bodyguard for me today, Bill. You haven't seen him anywhere before, have you?"
Henderson extended a hand, examining Charlie's face closely. "Nice to meet you, Charlie. No, I'm pretty sure I haven't, Lois. That's probably a good thing, though. At least you know I haven't arrested him. When I get back to the station, I'll check the missing persons reports, if you like."
"I'd appreciate that," Lois said. "If you can get through, I'll either be at the Planet or you can leave a message there for me. I'll be at the EPRAD press conference this afternoon."
Henderson nodded. "I figured you would be. Tell 'em to shoot straight."
"I'll do that." The woman was back with her order. Lois stepped up to the counter to claim it. "I'll see you later, Bill." She hesitated and added, less casually, "Be careful, today, all right?"
The detective smiled dryly. "I could say the same to you, but it would be a waste of time. Good luck, Lois."
They walked slowly back toward the Planet. Charlie didn't say anything, but his expression said he was thinking a good deal. "He seems like a good guy."
"He is," Lois said. "Don't ever tell him I said that, though. He'd think I was going soft."
"I've been a little worried that I might have been a criminal," Charlie said. "I mean, how would I know, if I can't remember my past?"
Lois shook her head. "You weren't a criminal, Charlie. I know that for certain. If anything, you're a little too nice for your own good. That's one of the things that makes me think you're not from here."
"How is it possible to be too nice?" Charlie asked.
"Believe me, it is — at least, in Metropolis. That's all right, though. Stick with me and I'll keep you out of trouble," Lois said, before she thought. If she was right, she might end up sending him right back into whatever danger he was trying to avoid. The realization was unexpectedly troubling to her. Charlie was her friend, no matter how short a time she had known him. She liked him — a lot. She didn't have many real friends and Charlie was one she didn't want to lose.
He was taking his role as bodyguard seriously, she thought, watching him. He was observing the whole area, obviously ready to protect her from any and all threats that might emerge in this new situation of the last three days. He glanced down at her with a slight smile, but didn't relax his watchfulness. "I know, I'm probably making too much of this, but I don't want you to get hurt," he said. "Too many people think that the lack of police gives them carte blanche to do whatever they want."
"I'm not arguing," Lois said. "Usually, I can take care of myself but it doesn't hurt to have some help — especially right now."
"After yesterday, I believe you," Charlie said. "That mugger will never be the same. I guess self defense training comes in useful on your job."
"Definitely," she said. "It's saved my neck more than once."
They reached the Daily Planet and Charlie let her go ahead of him into the lobby. The concession stands inside were empty today. Bill, the only security guard present, was seated on a chair to one side of the room. He raised a hand to them as they went by.
When the elevator disgorged them on the third floor, Lois was surprised to see that one more person had arrived during their absence. In addition to Perry and Jimmy, who were watching the monitors as the LNN newscaster reported on a demonstration just outside EPRAD's main gate, Cat Grant was seated at her desk, eating a sandwich. As they crossed the newsroom to deliver the food to its recipients, she lowered the sandwich and deliberately surveyed Charlie from head to toe. Lois saw a faint flush stain his cheekbones but he didn't react, otherwise.
"These characters have got to be the ultimate idiots," Perry remarked, accepting the bag containing his lunch. "Is that my malt?"
"No, this one's Charlie's," Lois said. "Here's yours."
"Thanks." Her boss turned back to the scene on the monitors, beginning to unwrap his hamburger. "The only chance Earth has got is the Asgard rocket, and this batch is worried about polluting outer space with radiation. They want to call off the launch."
"Nobody said the human race was logical, Chief," Lois said. "I'm more worried about our survival at the moment. Outer space will have to take care of itself." She extracted Jimmy's burger and fries from the larger bag and handed him his soda. "Here you go, Jimmy."
"I got some of the stuff you wanted," Jimmy said, taking the food. "The computer is still searching but I thought you'd like to look at what I've found, so far. It's on your desk."
"Thanks." Lois headed for her desk. "Come on, Charlie. We can read while we eat. I have to be at EPRAD in about three hours."
Perry swallowed a large mouthful of burger. "I'm issuing Charlie a press pass so he can go in with you, Lois. As long as he's playing bodyguard, as far as I'm concerned he's got a legitimate reason to be there. I don't want you running around out there without some backup."
"Good idea," Lois said. "Actually, I was going to suggest it. Charlie's turned out to be pretty useful a couple of times since yesterday."
"Yeah," Perry said. "Bill told me about the battleaxe." He gave Charlie a respectful look. "You keep her safe, you hear me, Charlie?"
"I will, Mr. White." Charlie pulled out Lois's chair for her and turned to appropriate another from a nearby desk. Lois dug into the bag of food and presented him with his burger, two extra-large orders of fries and the super-sized malt.
"Here you go. Let's see what Jimmy's found for us."
The stack of printer paper was a good inch thick. Lois absently unwrapped her burger while scanning the first incident. It described a case of climbers in the Alps, trapped by an avalanche and the angel who had appeared and taken them to safety. Dated three years ago, she supposed it could have been Charlie, although how he would have gotten that high in the Alps she couldn't explain. Still, it might be possible. Maybe he'd flown up there in his ship. No one reported seeing such a thing, but maybe it was invisible, like the one in that Star Trek movie.
But, if her assumptions about Charlie were true, why on Earth — or in space, she amended — was he here? Just to run around doing good deeds? That seemed pretty unlikely. Was he some kind of guardian of Earth like a comic book character, or something? A glance at Charlie told her how silly such an idea was. He was here for something, but being a two-dimensional comic book hero wasn't one of them. Charlie was a real person, and there was a real answer there somewhere. But if he'd been here for a while, there had undoubtedly been a number of times that he'd found himself in a position to help. She'd bet anything she owned that he'd done just that when he could.
Taking a long slurp of her chocolate malt, she settled down to read.
The list of "incidents" provided by Jimmy had been formidable, Lois thought. There had been the team of scientists studying a sunken temple off the coast of Thailand, stranded when their submersible lost power under the ocean, suddenly finding itself on the surface half a mile from their support ship. There was the story of Marie, a small girl in Paris, trapped in her room when her home caught fire and the mysterious rescuer who apparently walked through flames to take her to safety. An earthquake victim, imprisoned in his car under a collapsing overpass awoke to find himself lying in a field a mile from the disaster with no memory of how he got there. There had been the prison break when all the escapees turned up caught in their escape tunnel — because of the boxcar that somehow wound up sitting on top of the exit hole and a hundred more, all equally inexplicable. Could it have been Charlie at work?
Most of the incidents had been within the past eight years, too. The ones before that were less definite, more as if they were the products of fertile imaginations. The reports that caught her attention had witnesses — credible ones. If she were right, Charlie had been around for about eight years, and he had traveled around the world. Events of the type she looked for tended to be clustered in a certain area of the world at one time and then, a few months later, would move on to another part — as if Charlie, for some reason, had felt the need to change his location. But the first ones of the type she was looking for and the ones for the last year had tended to congregate mostly in the American Midwest, with the occasional lapse, such as Paolo Bertolli's blue Lear jet.
But there were a few that matched the pattern in all ways but location. There had been the mysterious "angel" who had appeared to the victims of the Chilean earthquake six months ago, who had rescued hundreds of villagers from their ruined homes, lifted huge boulders to free trapped people, built a dam within minutes to stop the river from flooding the besieged town, and who vanished as if he had never been when the rescue teams arrived. But the results of his presence remained. The village priest had called it a miracle. Government officials discounted the whole thing as a mass hallucination, but no explanation was ever given for the fact that the village had been saved from the flood. Could that have been Charlie, too? If so, she had only discovered a tiny fraction of what he could do. If it had been he, then he could surely save them from Nightfall — if he could only remember who and what he was.
Lois glanced at Charlie who was reading through the sheets of paper at warp speed. She doubted he'd even noticed how fast he was absorbing the material until Jimmy had remarked on it. Then he'd looked embarrassed and muttered something about being a speed reader. She hadn't commented, figuring the less said, the better.
The clock said it was almost noon. She pushed back her chair. "Charlie, we have to go. The press conference is in about an hour."
He put down the paper. "I'm ready when you are."
"We're off, then." She reached under her desk to retrieve her handbag and stood up. "How's that research coming, Jimmy?"
"I've got a bunch of stuff here. How much do you want?"
"I guess what you have will do. Just put it on my desk. I'll look at it when I get back."
"Will do." Jimmy bent backward in his chair, stretching. "I know I said we'd need a miracle but I didn't really expect one, you know."
"Neither do I, Jim," she said. "It's just something I'm trying to figure out. If I do, I'll tell you all about it. Eventually."
The crowd in front of EPRAD's main gate was blocking the entrance completely and quite obviously had no intention of letting the members of the press through. Requests from loudspeakers at the security checkpoint for them to clear the way were met with jeers and catcalls. Lois waited impatiently in the long line of vehicles all bearing the logos of various news organizations, as EPRAD's Security forces removed the demonstrators, hauling them away like sacks of meal. It took considerably longer than Lois liked and once her Jeep was hit by an egg, thrown by one of the demonstrators, but at last, the way was clear, barring some debris and a few wooden signs left behind.
She and Charlie showed their press passes to the guards at the gate and were waved through. Handmade signs directed them to a parking lot set aside for them. Lois pulled the Cherokee into a parking place and cut the engine. Beside her in the passenger seat, Charlie looked nervously around.
"I hope nobody asks for any other I.D."
"Why should they?" Lois asked. "According to your pass, you're Charles Kerry, from the Daily Planet. That's all they care about. Let's go."
Charlie ran a hand over the stubble on his chin. "I don't see any other guys with this on their faces."
She shrugged. "You're trying to grow a beard. Big deal. Lots of guys are doing that these days."
He regarded her with a smile. "You've got an answer for everything."
"Naturally." She found herself smiling back at the expression on his face. "You're not dealing with an amateur here, Mr. Kerry."
"You have a point." His smile faltered slightly. "In fact, I think you're pretty amazing. I only wish…"
"What?" she asked, when he didn't complete the sentence.
"I just wish I knew if I was-um-well — married or anything," he said.
"Oh," was all she said, but the meaning behind Charlie's remark was clear. "Well, once you get your memory back, we'll find out."
"Yeah." He dropped his gaze and reached for the door handle. "I guess we'd better get to the press conference."
"I guess so." She opened her door and got out, frowning at the mess on the left fender of the Cherokee. She was going to have to wash that off as soon as she could before it dried on and nothing could get it off without damage to the paint, she thought, irrelevantly. That was definitely on the agenda as soon as they got back to the city.
She cussed softly to herself. Normally, when there was a demonstration, she tried to see both sides of the issue in question but this time her sympathies were definitely not with a bunch of suicidal protestors. Besides, they had egged her beloved Jeep and thereby put themselves beyond forgiveness.
She was aware that she was trying to avoid thinking about Charlie's remark. As they walked side by side across the lot, Lois stole a glance at her companion. His expression was hard to read but the tightness of his jaw told her that he wasn't as relaxed as his posture might lead someone else to assume. He might be regretting having said what he had, she thought. Charlie was an honorable guy. He wouldn't try to make any advances toward her unless he knew that he was free to do so. The fact that she was so certain of that was almost a surprise in itself. She didn't trust many people but he'd shown her in the short time she'd known him that he was worthy of that trust.
In a way, she felt relieved at the thought. Her previous relationships with members of the opposite sex had turned into federal disasters, one way or another. She didn't want that to happen again, especially with Charlie, or to lose the easy friendship they had developed since she had known him. Still, being treated like a sister by a man as attractive as Charlie didn't hold the appeal she had imagined it would. The question about his marital status was one that she would like to resolve — eventually, anyhow.
Well, no one had any way of knowing if there would be a future for any of them after tomorrow. She might as well shelve the question for the time being, she decided. If they managed to avert the current crisis, she could think about it, then. That put the possible dilemma safely in the future. Besides, if he wasn't from Earth, maybe it wouldn't matter. With that somewhat reassuring rationalization, she filed the problem away for future reference. Concentrating on the job at hand was more important.
The location of the press conference was the same as before. The members of the press jockeyed for the best positions from which to hurl questions at the speakers and then shifted about, waiting impatiently for those same speakers to arrive. Lois found her neighbor to be Phil Morrison from the Star on one side and Linda King of the Herald on the other. She made a point of ignoring Linda as if she didn't exist. Linda and she hadn't spoken since the day in college when she had discovered the woman's theft of her story. The theft had been an effort on Linda's part to win the approval of their campus paper's editor, Paul. It had succeeded, but at the cost of her friendship with Lois.
Linda, as usual, tossed her red-dyed hair and looked away as well, but Lois could see her beady eyes widen as they focussed on Charlie. She stepped forward and extended a hand. "Linda King, Metropolis Herald. You are…?"
"Charles Kerry," Charlie said, mindful of his instructions. "From the Daily Planet."
"I don't think I've seen you before," Linda said.
Lois gritted her teeth. It figured. Linda couldn't just stick to her own business. She had to try to horn in on Lois's territory as brazenly as she had seven years ago. The problem was, men were usually completely taken in. Male hormones, she thought. Somehow, they always seemed to think the woman was attractive. She glared at Linda, trying to project a silent warning.
Charlie glanced at Lois, a faint look of surprise on his face. "I — um, I'm new," he said, giving Linda's hand a quick shake. "Mr. White wouldn't have sent me if there had been anyone else."
Linda's expression of interest sharpened and she opened her mouth to speak. Fortunately, General Zeitlin, accompanied by Professor Daitch, had appeared and now climbed to the podium. Lois nudged Charlie and directed his attention to the two men. She would have to warn him about Linda after the conference, she decided. The little sneak was utterly without scruples. Without his memory, Charlie would have no idea how to defend himself against her.
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen of the press," General Zeitlin's voice boomed out, accompanied by a terrific squeal of feedback. The general winced slightly and pulled back from the microphone. "Good afternoon," he repeated.
The crowd of journalists fell silent, every eye fixed on the general. The man cleared his throat.
"As you know, we called this press conference to keep the American people updated on the current emergency." The general hesitated. "Professor Daitch?"
Daitch stepped up to the microphone. "The fragments of the Nightfall Asteroid are continuing on course, as might be expected," he said. "Revised calculations place their arrival at approximately six-oh-three tomorrow evening, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean."
"Can't you place it more closely?" Linda King called. "Will it be in the northern or southern hemisphere?"
Daitch seemed somewhat nonplused. "Um — there is a scattering of fragments," he explained. "Some will miss us entirely. The largest fragment — the one we're most worried about — is certainly going to hit us, probably in the Southern Hemisphere, if we can't intercept it. There will be scattered strikes both north and south, and possibly a few will hit land. These will be relatively minor in comparison to the largest one, which is the target of the Asgard rocket."
"When is the rocket being launched?" someone wanted to know. "It seems dangerous to wait until it's right on top of us."
Daitch hesitated. "General Zeitlin will answer that question," he said, and stepped back.
Zeitlin nodded. "Thank you, Professor. The Asgard rocket was launched yesterday from the EPRAD base in Houston, under the guise of a weather satellite." He dropped the information in an almost casual tone and waited while the inevitable swell of voices had died down. "I'm sure all of you saw the demonstration at the gate when you arrived. We needed to avoid such confusion and possible attempts at sabotage since there isn't a margin for error, this time. The launch window and the location of the launch itself were deliberately misstated in order to avoid the problems that would have inevitably arisen. It's on its way, ladies and gentlemen of the press. It should intercept the fragment in question in about twenty-four hours, inside the moon's orbit."
"That's awfully close to Earth," Charlie was saying some time later as they walked back toward the Cherokee. "I wonder why they had to wait until it was so close."
Lois shrugged. "I don't know. I hope they know what they're doing."
"So do I." Charlie hitched his shoulders uncomfortably. "If they miss, Nightfall will hit about four hours later."
"I hate to admit it," Lois said, "but I'm scared."
"Yeah. So am I." Charlie looked involuntarily up at the sky. "I don't know why I'm looking. There's nothing to see."
"Not yet." They approached the Jeep and Lois unlocked her door. "I don't want it to get close enough to see."
"Yeah." Charlie went around to the passenger side and waited until she pulled the locking button on his door. "Lois, do you really think I had something to do with breaking up the asteroid?"
"Yes, I do." She started the engine. "I think you're responsible for a lot of so-called miracles that have happened in the last eight years. You read that list Jimmy dredged up."
"Yeah, I did." He was closely studying his hands, folded tightly in his lap. "I have to admit, it looks kind of like it. But how about that one where the guy swore a flying man pulled him out of an explosion? You don't really believe that stuff, do you?"
Lois shook her head. "I doubt it. You know, the authorities decided he'd hit his head when the explosion somehow threw him free and his imagination most likely supplied an explanation for the miraculous escape. Somehow, I can't quite make myself believe in a man who can fly under his own power, unless he's got some kind of anti- gravity device. I suppose that could be possible if you're from another planet."
"I guess. But I don't have any of that stuff, Lois. If I *do* have a space ship somewhere, I don't have any idea where it is."
Both were silent while she maneuvered the Cherokee out of the lot but Lois's mind continued to circle endlessly about the puzzle of Charlie and his unearthly abilities. When they pulled onto the highway again, she spoke. "Did you notice that most of the early incidents on that list and a lot of the ones in the last year happened in the Midwest? It's like you were there for a while, traveled for a couple of years and then went back there again. What would you have been doing in the Midwest?"
He shrugged. "I have no idea."
"Well, I think you were living there. It's logical that you'd establish yourself somewhere like that. Someplace where there aren't so many people, maybe — and where you could move around without people watching everything you did."
"I don't know about that," Charlie said. "I'd think that if anything, I'd have picked the city if I wanted to move around without being noticed. In small towns, everybody knows everything about everybody else."
"How do you know that?"
Charlie paused, frowning. "I don't know," he said. "It just seems to make sense."
"I think it's because you know some small town, somewhere," she said. "I think I'm right. So, you probably live somewhere in this country, possibly in a small town in the Midwest. Somehow, you ended up in Metropolis, night before last, without your memory."
Charlie was silent a few moments, absorbing that. "And this is leading up to…?" he said.
"I don't know, really," Lois said. "I'm just trying to figure out as much as I can. Maybe something will jog your memory. When we get back to the office, I'm going to try to chart all the events in the last year on a map. Maybe we can figure out which part of the Midwest you've been living in."
"And maybe we should check with your friend, Inspector Henderson," Charlie suggested. "I might be on a missing person report from somewhere, if anyone's reported that I'm missing."
"Maybe," Lois agreed. "Only, if it's just been since night before last, it might not have reached Metropolis yet. The lines have been pretty much jammed. Still, the police might have priority over the rest of us."
"There's probably been a lot of people who've disappeared in the last couple of days," Charlie said, sounding discouraged. "It seems like the whole world has lost its collective mind."
"No, just its collective hope," Lois said. "People are afraid. *I'm* afraid, Charlie. I don't want to die."
"Whatever happens, I won't let you die," he said. "I promise you that, Lois."
"You won't, if you can prevent it," she said, "but my world will be gone. Everything we've known will be gone. And a lot of people are going to die, no matter what you do. Even *you* can't be everywhere, Charlie, no matter how fast and strong you may be."
"In other words, if my job really is to stop Nightfall, I'd better figure out how to do it," Charlie said. "If I can remember."
"Charlie…" Lois saw the light ahead of her turn yellow and began to apply the brake. "The dream where you remembered the jet…"
"You dreamed you were on a farm. Was there anyone else in the dream?"
He frowned, obviously striving to remember. "I don't know. You know how you forget dreams after you wake up. I don't really remember anymore. It seems like there might have been, but —"
"Yeah." Lois brought the car to a stop. From the corner of her eye, she caught motion but ignored it. "So we don't know if anyone would be reporting you missing.'
"I guess not…Lois!" His exclamation startled her. Then she felt the knife blade pressed to her throat.
"You!" a deep voice said. "Get out or the lady gets it."
Lois froze. They were being carjacked. Why not? she thought, irrelevantly. Everything else that could go wrong had happened in the last two days. The blade of the knife dug into the skin of her throat and she could feel the muscular strength of the arm that held her tightly against her attacker.
Charlie moved slowly to unfasten his seatbelt. If he let the man into the car, she was well aware that the chances of her surviving this were slight. The carjacker's breath was hot on the back of her neck and she wrinkled her nose involuntarily at the odor.
"Shut up!" The arm clutched her more tightly. "Do what you're told and you'll live through this. Move it, 'Charlie'! Get outta the car!"
Charlie unfastened the seatbelt and reached for the door handle, all in slow motion. Lois closed her eyes in despair.
The knife was suddenly yanked from her throat and a yell of fury from her assailant made her eyes fly open. Charlie was gripping the hand that held the knife with his left hand and had the man's other forearm held in an equally iron grasp. He literally peeled the carjacker's arms away from her with inexorable strength.
"Lois," he said, quietly, "can you climb over me, please? I don't think we should let this one go, do you?"
Mutely, she shook her head, squirmed around and managed to crawl across the gearshift and Charlie's lap, letting him slide over into the driver's seat.
Charlie had an expression on his face that would have made her giggle if she'd been in any mood to do so. It was stern and serious, his jaw was set, and it reminded her of all the imaginary heroes from the Lone Ranger to Zorro, that she had ever read about. Charlie was deadly serious, and if she was any judge, angry as well.
The carjacker turned captive tried to jerk free, but he might as well have been struggling with a python. Charlie didn't even react. With clinical precision, he released the carjacker's arm and grasped the wrist of his knife hand. The man struck at Charlie's face with his suddenly free fist, without result. Or maybe, Lois thought a second later, it was simply a different result than he had expected. She heard the smack of knuckles on bone and the carjacker howled in pain, shaking his injured hand. Charlie ignored the blow as if it hadn't happened. He simply contracted his own hand in a paralyzing squeeze on the imprisoned wrist. The man's fingers opened involuntarily and Charlie gently removed the knife from his grasp, blade-first, dropping it to the floor of the Jeep.
"What do you want to do with him?" Lois asked.
"I think we should drive him to a police station," Charlie said, mildly. If she hadn't seen the flash of anger in his eyes before he'd brought it under control, she'd have been completely fooled. "I'm sure they can stash him somewhere safe until this Nightfall thing is over. Why don't I get into the back seat with him and you can drive. You know where things are better than I do. Don't worry; he's not going anywhere."
Lois had no difficulty believing that. She found herself nodding agreement. The carjacker glared at Charlie. "I'll get you for this!"
"Maybe," Charlie agreed. "But not today. I'm the lady's bodyguard — and I take my job very seriously."
The drive to the 13th Street police station was accomplished in twenty minutes, mostly in silence — "mostly", because their captive occupied the first few minutes in the rear seat cursing steadily at Charlie. Charlie finally gave him a gentle shake and told him to be quiet or he'd gag him with his own shirt. Apparently, the man believed him, because he'd fallen silent for the remainder of the trip.
The police station was nearly empty when they arrived. Lois opened the frosted glass door for Charlie to herd his unwilling companion through and looked around the almost empty room. The station was nearly silent. The only officer in sight was Robert Gunderson, the desk sergeant, but he recognized Lois at once, as might have been expected, she reflected. Gunderson and she had had a few reasonably amicable, professional run-ins in the past. He glanced at Charlie and his captive and looked back to Lois for an explanation.
"This guy tried to carjack me, with a knife," Lois said. "If it weren't for Charlie, I'd probably be dead."
Gunderson eyed the culprit with a sardonic expression. His eyebrows went up. "Well, well! Harry Broder, as I live and breathe," he said, dryly. "Up to your old tricks again, Harry?"
Broder glared back. "I got nothin' to say."
Gunderson stuck two fingers in his mouth and produced a shrill whistle. "Young! Get in here!"
A youthful police officer with one arm in a cast, appeared. "You called, Sarge?"
"Yeah, read this guy his rights and lock him up for the time being, then take Ms. Lane's report. You can book him later." He glanced back at Lois. "We're a bit short- handed, what with the emergency."
"I gathered that when I ran into Henderson this morning," Lois said. "He was covering for one of the regular police patrols."
"We got everybody working double shifts," Gunderson said. "I don't know what we're gonna do if that thing really hits us."
"With luck, it won't," Lois said. "The Asgard rocket is already on its way."
"Good luck to it — and all of us," Gunderson said. "You, Charlie, is it? Would you mind helpin' Young take Harry back to the lockup? He broke a wrist in one of the riots last night."
"No problem," Charlie said. He nodded at Young. "Lead the way, Officer."
The three disappeared through a door in the rear of the room. Gunderson pointed down an adjoining hall. "Go on in there, Ms. Lane. Young's desk is by the door. He'll be in to take your complaint in a few minutes."
Some twenty minutes later, Lois and Charlie were ready to leave. Charlie had given his statement as a witness and Young had retrieved Harry's knife from the floor of the Cherokee. Charlie started to open the door of the police station for Lois only to have it pulled open by someone entering from the outside. Inspector William Henderson, followed by a uniformed officer, stepped within. He raised an eyebrow at Lois. "Here to check the missing person reports, Lois?"
"Actually, I'd forgotten about that," she admitted. "A man tried to carjack my Jeep and Charlie stopped him. Do you have the time to check them now?"
Henderson shrugged. "Sure, why not? Come with me."
They followed him toward his office. Charlie glanced at Lois with one eyebrow up. "They seem to know you around here," he said in a low voice.
"Yeah, sort of," Lois admitted, her voice equally soft. "Henderson and I have sort of been sparring partners for a few years. Then, a few months ago, I broke the case of a scientist at EPRAD who was sabotaging the space program for profit. Jimmy and I barely got out alive. Henderson thinks I'm too reckless and told me so in so many words." She grinned. "He nearly arrested me for trespassing after I sneaked into EPRAD to investigate what was being done to the Messenger rocket to find out why it exploded, but he let me off because I *did* save the space program, after all."
"What did you do?" Charlie asked.
"I found a bomb on the shuttle that was taking the colonists up to the space station and managed to alert Mission Control before they fired the rockets. They were able to launch with only a slight delay. The hitch, of course, was that I was on the shuttle without authorization. Fortunately, EPRAD declined to press charges, since I'd alerted them to the emergency. Everything worked out okay."
"I guess so," Charlie said, thoughtfully. "Your life sounds kind of — exciting, to say the least."
"My mother tells me I'm driving her to an early grave," Lois said. "I've come through alive so far, though."
Charlie didn't say anything but he cast a skeptical glance at her. Lois briefly thought of challenging him but decided against it, considering Henderson's presence ahead of them. The detective opened the door of his office and waved them through.
"Give me a couple of minutes and I'll pull the latest ones up for you," he said. "Sit down." He dropped into his seat and rotated his chair to face the slightly older computer that occupied the spot. Lois glanced around and found a place on the battered sofa sitting against one wall. Charlie settled down beside her. He had been sticking closer to her than ever since the carjacking attempt, she thought. Still, that wasn't such a bad thing. Having a super-powered man looking out for your welfare definitely had its advantages. Especially one who looked like Charlie. Even with the heavy stubble on his face, his appearance was one to make any woman give him a second look as well as a third and a fourth.
"We only have five reports of missing persons," Henderson said, suddenly. "Three women, one guy about seventy years old and an eighteen year old kid. I guess no one's reported Charlie, yet — at least, to us."
"Only five?" Lois asked. "How is that possible."
Henderson just looked at her. "I think that's obvious, don't you?"
Of course, it was. The fear that had gripped the planet since the discovery of Nightfall was disrupting a great many things. Lower priorities, such as missing persons, took second place to keeping the entire structure of civilization from disintegrating around them. The police in most places were concentrating on maintaining a semblance of order among the frightened citizens. Hadn't she thought, a few days earlier, that panicky human beings were more likely to destroy the world before Nightfall ever arrived? Most people were probably keeping their heads but there were enough who weren't to keep the police fully occupied for the time being. Not to mention, those like Harry Broder who were taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes.
She nodded, reluctantly. "I suppose so. Thanks for taking the time to check, though. I appreciate it."
Henderson's right eyebrow went up. "No insults? Are you feeling all right, Lois?"
She made a feeble attempt at a smile. "Not really, Bill. If everything turns out all right after all, I'll go back to insulting you then, if you don't mind. I'm just not up to it right now."
The man's expression changed. His mouth twisted, wryly. "I don't think I could take it if Mad Dog Lane gave up the fight," he said, in a completely different tone. "Hang in there, will you Lois? Even if that thing in the sky hits, Metropolis will survive. It's people like you who will *make* it survive, if worst comes to worst."
"He's right, you know," Charlie said. "You're the kind of person who makes things happen. You've proven that to me in the last couple of days."
Lois felt her eyes prickling with the threat of tears. The strain, and her doubts and downright fears for the future that had been weighing on her for the last three days were suddenly almost too much for her self-control. All her adult life she had avoided dealing with real emotions, her own and others. It was so much easier to hide behind her work, or a facade of anger or humor; even the light sparring in which she and Henderson engaged whenever they met. Honest feelings were uncomfortable things, best left buried, but it was at times like this one, when people let down their guard, that they often unexpectedly emerged.
Someone put a handkerchief into her hands. She looked up to see Bill Henderson, his dark, saturnine face unexpectedly concerned, and became aware that tears were rolling silently down her cheeks. Charlie had reached out to take her hand, and was glancing from her to Henderson and back again, obviously unsure what to do. She gulped and dabbed at her eyes.
"Sorry," she muttered. "I'm okay."
Henderson gave a crooked smile. "It's reassuring to know that even Lois Lane is human," he said, dryly. "We're going to make it, Lois. The human race is tougher than you think. Whether that thing hits us or not, we'll survive and come back stronger than ever. It's people like you who make me sure of that."
"That's a funny thing for a cop to say," she managed.
He turned away to cross the floor to the water cooler in the corner of his office. An instant later, he returned with a paper cup. "Here, drink this. No, not really. A good cop has to be an optimist in the long run, or he wouldn't be in the job. If he didn't have hope for the good, honest, hard-working people he protects, he'd burn out. It's just sometimes hard to see the optimism in the middle of all the negative things he has to deal with, but it's still there, underneath. An investigative reporter isn't so different. If you didn't have hope, you'd be doing something else."
Henderson was right, she was thinking a few minutes later, as she and Charlie walked out to the Jeep. Hope was a hard thing to kill. It might sink and hide for a while, but it never quite died. There was still hope that Charlie would remember enough before it was too late. And the Asgard rocket had pretty good odds, too. She shouldn't discount it yet, even if shooting asteroids hadn't been its original purpose. The Earth had more than a fighting chance. She wasn't giving up yet.
The office was quiet when they arrived back at the Planet. Perry, Jimmy and Cat were still there and, while Lois and Charlie had been gone, they had been joined by Eduardo and Madeline, the fashion editor. The five were grouped around the monitors, watching the LNN newscast. The progress of the Asgard rocket in relation to the asteroid was showing on the screen as they entered, with a countdown superimposed across the bottom of the picture. Lois grimaced at the numbers: 26 hours, 37 minutes and 53 seconds, counting down as she watched.
With difficulty, she pulled her gaze away from the sight. She had work to do. Watching the approach of Armageddon wouldn't help.
Her companion was watching the screen, too, an expression she couldn't quite read on his face. Charlie was afraid, but the fear was almost hidden by one of pure, helpless frustration.
"Charlie?" she said, "is something wrong?"
He turned to look at her, trying to compose his features as he did.
"I just have this feeling there's something I can do — if I can just remember!" The vehemence of the words was not diminished in the least by the low tone in which he spoke. "It's like everything is there on the other side of a wall that I can't break down! Lois, I don't want this to happen! I guess I don't have to tell you that. What's it going to be like if you're right, if I remember when it's too late, and realize I could have stopped all this?"
She reached out to touch his arm. "I know, Charlie. I don't remember much about psychology, but I remember the stuff they said about the subconscious. It doesn't reason; it just knows what it wants. I think your subconscious is just plain scared. It doesn't care if your conscious mind wants to help. It's afraid and won't let you remember."
"Then, what am I going to do? I want to remember — I want to help. How am I going to get around a part of my mind that won't cooperate?"
"We're just going to have to keep trying. Maybe if we can find someone who knows about you; maybe if we can find where you've been living, someone there can help."
Charlie nodded. "Maybe."
"And, there's always the chance that your need to help will overcome the fear," Lois said, softly. "I think that's the kind of person you are, Charlie. I think you go out of your way to help other people. If you were responsible for even a tenth of those so-called miracles Jimmy dug up, there's no doubt of it. Let's go into the conference room. I want to try placing those incidents on a map and see if we can pinpoint where you come from — maybe a town or a city. The police department there might have a missing persons report, even if Metropolis doesn't. Anything familiar might jog your memory."
Charlie gathered up the stack of paper that Jimmy had left on Lois's desk. "Do you have a map?"
"There's a computer in the conference room. We'll use that."
"I think," Lois said, "that we'll stick with a map of the United States, and limit our incidents to the last two years."
"Why two years?" Charlie asked.
"We're trying to find the place where you've most likely been living most recently," she said. "I'm going to mark the incidents in color. The ones with eyewitnesses are going to be red, the ones where it was a probable will be blue and the maybes will be in yellow. We'll mark rumors in green."
An hour later, Lois and Charlie were looking at a map of the United States speckled with dots of different colors. The incidents had occurred all over the country, but the pattern was clear. They clustered most thickly around the American Midwest, specifically Kansas. The red spots were few and scattered, as might be expected. Charlie was apparently fairly careful to avoid being seen by groups of people, but the farther away from the central cluster the event occurred, the more people had actually seen a man in connection with the odd events, such as the one involving the sky blue Lear jet at Metro Airfield. Even then, he'd been careful not to be seen doing anything out of the ordinary — except for the very fact of the seeming miracle, itself.
The blue, yellow and green dots appeared far more frequently, of course, but Lois could see the pattern clearly. She looked at Charlie. "I'd say you've been living somewhere in Kansas, Charlie. Does that sound familiar?"
He shrugged. "Maybe. But how did I get to Metropolis, in that case?"
"How did you get to any of these places, assuming that you were responsible for some of these things? You must have some kind of transportation that gets you places fast."
"I wish I could find it, if I do." Charlie rubbed his face. "Can you expand the map? I'd like a closer look at that part of the country."
"Sure." Lois clicked her cursor on the thickest collection of multicolored dots and the features of the country drew in close.
"Hmm…Wichita's the biggest city in the area," Lois said. "And there are a bunch of small towns — Hoxie, Oakley, Smallville, Ellis, Goodland…who on Earth would name a town Pepper? Does any of that sound familiar?"
Charlie was staring at the map, his face contorted in a frown of concentration. "I…I'm not sure. Do you think you could find aerial photographs? I'd like to see what it really looks like, rather than just looking at a map."
"Sure." Lois stood up and stretched, aware suddenly of how tense her neck and shoulders had become. Charlie was trying as hard as he could but time was growing so short. If the Asgard rocket, by some horrible twist of fate, missed its target, he might be Earth's last hope and he couldn't remember how to help. "I think Jimmy might have a better chance of finding them, though." She opened the door into the main newsroom. "Jimmy, could you come here for a minute?"
The Planet's gofer hoisted himself from his chair. He'd been flicking paperclips at the nearest trashcan and the little silver clips lay scattered all around his target. Lois held the door for him as he entered the conference room.
"What's up?" he asked.
"You're the computer whiz kid around here. We need some aerial maps of this part of the country." She waved at the computer screen. "Can you find some for us?"
He shrugged. "Sure, no problem. Why?"
"We're trying to stimulate Charlie's memory. He says he remembers flying a lot. He may have been a pilot." She was aware that the explanation was incomplete but Jimmy seemed to accept it.
"The Planet's database has aerial photos of the whole country," he said, sliding into the chair in front of the computer as he spoke. His fingers flew over the keys and a moment later a photo appeared on the screen. "There you go. If you need to look at any others, just go to the mapsite menu…see?" He demonstrated by minimizing the picture to reveal the printing behind it. "I designed it," he added, with a touch of pride, restoring the photo as he spoke.
"I didn't know that," Lois said. "Thanks, Jimmy. This is just what we needed."
"Can I help with anything else?" Jimmy looked wistful. "It would be better than just sitting there watching the monitors count down."
"If I think of something, I'll call you," Lois promised. "Right now, there doesn't seem to be much either of us can do except to try to jog Charlie's memory."
"Well, maybe another hit on the head will bring it back," Jimmy suggested. "It always works in the movies."
"I don't think so," Lois said, making a face. "It seems to me something like that is more likely to cause damage than to help. Head injuries are nothing to sneeze at. People die of them all the time."
"I guess," Jimmy agreed. "It doesn't really make much sense if you think about it." He turned to Charlie, who had leaned forward to examine the picture on the computer screen. "Recognize anything, Charlie?"
Charlie was staring at the picture as if frozen in place. "I don't know," he said, but his voice lacked conviction. "I'm not sure, but it looks kind of familiar."
"Maybe you're from the area," Jimmy suggested.
"Maybe. Or he could have flown over it," Lois said. Some instinct she didn't even recognize led her to divert Jimmy from the question of Charlie's origin. "Lots of pictures taken from the air look alike. If Charlie's a pilot, he'd be used to seeing that kind of thing."
"Yeah," Jimmy said. "Well, there are a lot of aerial photos there. If you need anything, let me know, okay?"
"I will," Lois promised. She glanced out the window at the city, noting that the sunlight was almost completely blocked by the taller buildings. She glanced at the wall clock in surprise, noting that it was nearly five. At this time of the year, while the days were still getting shorter, the sun set not long after five o'clock. Winter solstice, and the first day of winter, was officially only three weeks away, and Christmas only a few days after that. Where would they be this Christmas, she wondered, dismally. Since her parents had broken up, Christmas had always been a burden for her more than anything else, but for most people it was a joyous time of year. If Nightfall hit, would people even celebrate Christmas?
"Lois, I do recognize this picture," Charlie said, suddenly. "It's not just a similarity; I'm sure of it. I've seen it before. Oh, some of the stuff is different. That truck wasn't there, and that old farm building is gone now, but…"
Lois had turned to the picture like a shot, barely noticing that Jimmy had left the room. "How can you see details like that? What truck?"
"Here." He indicated an indistinct blob on one of the lines that Lois had figured was probably a dirt road. "This is a load of some kind of produce. It looks like the picture was taken in autumn."
Lois clicked on one of the icons at the bottom of the picture. "October 1988," she confirmed. "How could you tell that, Charlie? I sure couldn't."
He shrugged. "I can see it," he said. "When I focus really hard on something, it's like a magnifying glass, or something. I can't explain it."
"And you've seen this place before?" She squinted at the caption. "Where is it?"
Charlie didn't even have to squint to read the tiny lettering. "Smallville, Kansas," he said. "That's actually the town up there at the top of the picture. The rest of this is the surrounding countryside — farms, mostly."
"Farms," Lois said. "And you dreamed you were helping out on a farm. You don't think it was a memory, do you?"
"Maybe. How can I tell? But, I know I've seen this part of the country before — from the air."
"Let's look at some of the other towns and nearby countryside," Lois suggested, after a few seconds. "Maybe it'll bring back more."
"Sure." Charlie agreed. He turned to look at the picture again, and she saw him frown in concentration. "This farm here." He indicated it with an index finger. "There's something about it. I don't know…"
Lois tried not to sound too eager. "What, Charlie?"
He was silent for almost thirty seconds, frowning at the blurry picture. "Whatever it was, it's gone," he said, finally, and his tone was filled with restrained disappointment.
"It's all right, Charlie." Lois laid a hand on his shoulder. "You almost remembered something. It's just a matter of time, now. I'm sure of it."
He looked up at her. "Time is something we don't have much of," he said, quietly. "I wonder; could we get hold of a phone book for Smallville, Kansas? Maybe I'd recognize names if I saw them."
"Maybe. I don't know if one would be available over the Internet," Lois said. "Jimmy would know. I'll ask him."
"I wonder…" Charlie was still frowning. "Could we find out what newspapers they have out there? Local ones, I mean. If I know the town…"
"You might recognize things in the newspaper," she agreed, trying not to sound too excited. "Aren't small town papers pretty much devoted to local news?"
Charlie was nodding. "Lots of them are."
Lois turned to open the conference room door and at that precise second the lights went out. All around the room, the low hum of the equipment that functioned on electricity died.
For a second, the newsroom was completely silent and then a babble of voices arose as everyone in the room beyond tried to speak at once. Lois stopped in her tracks, waiting for her eyes to adjust. The conference room was dim, and only a pale glow of illumination shone through the window. While she and Charlie had been looking at the aerial photo of Smallville, the sun had dropped completely behind the buildings. Slowly she stepped back into the conference room and let the door swing shut.
There was the scrape of a chair as Charlie shoved it backwards and stood up, his features dimly visible in the sudden gloom. "Power failure," he said, stating the obvious.
Lois had an insane urge to scream. Just when it looked as if they were making progress, the Fates had decided to throw another obstacle in their path. Without power, the computers were useless. It seemed as if the great god Murphy was going overboard with his practical jokes today.
Slowly, careful not to collide with anything in the dimness, Lois made her way to the window. The sight that met her eyes was genuinely calculated to make the chills crawl across the back of her neck.
Except for the pale, fading colors of sunset in the western sky and the glow of headlights from the occasional lone car, the city was dark. No light shone from the windows of the towering buildings that graced Metropolis's skyline, the streetlights were out and none of the flashing, animated advertising signs that normally lit up the city's night were in evidence. Even as she watched, the traces of sunset were fading from the sky, plunging the streets into the deepest gloom. Metropolis was a shadow city inhabited by ghostly figures moving furtively through the increasing dimness below and it looked suddenly, although not unexpectedly, dangerous.
Lois drew in a deep breath. "I've never seen Metropolis like this," she murmured. "It's eerie."
"The moon will be up before long," Charlie said, practically. "It'll help. Do you have a flashlight?"
"Yeah, in my purse. Why? Do you need it?"
She could see him shake his head in the darkness of the room. "I know it's dark to you, but I can see fine. I was thinking about you trying to go home like this. It's going to be more dangerous than ever."
"Well, I'm not going home for a while. Maybe they'll have the power back on before then."
"I hope so. If they don't, I'm going with you. I can walk back here afterwards, or sleep in the bathtub or something."
"Charlie, I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself."
"I know you can," he said, sounding completely sincere. "The situation out there isn't normal right now, though. I'll feel better if I go with you, just to be sure you get home all right. Remember, I've been playing bodyguard for a couple of days now."
And, he'd saved her life a couple of times, she reminded herself. Little though she might want to admit it, having Charlie with her definitely made her feel a lot safer than she would have, alone. "Okay, I guess you can come," she agreed, trying to sound reluctant. "I wouldn't want you to worry."
Behind them, the door opened. Perry's voice said, "Everything okay in here?"
"We're fine, Perry," Lois said. "Unfortunately, we lost all our data from the search I was running."
"We're trying to find out what's happened," Perry said. "The phones are still working but they're jammed, of course. We can't get through to anyone who can tell us what's going on."
"Of course," Lois said, her voice sounding flat. "Do you ever have the feeling you're swimming upstream?"
"Huh?" Perry sounded slightly confused. "Yeah, sometimes. Look, Lois, I know it's almost time to head home but I don't want you goin' out on the streets alone right now. Charlie can stay here again tonight, and I'll drive you to your place in a bit."
"Charlie's taking me home in a little while, Perry. I'll be fine."
There was a slight pause. "Okay, I guess that'll be all right. I'll leave word with Security that they're to let you in when they get back, Charlie."
"Thanks, Mr. White," Charlie said.
"That's okay, Chief," Lois said. "I'm going to let him sleep on my couch. That way he'll be there to bring me back in the morning. I trust him. We spent last night alone in the Jeep, after all."
"Yeah, I guess you did," Perry agreed. "You keep her safe, you hear me, Charlie?"
"Yes, sir," Charlie said.
"We're not leaving yet," Lois said. "Has anybody got a radio with batteries?"
"We're checking around," Perry said. "Nobody in the newsroom does, but I sent Jimmy to look around the building."
"I'm going to try the phones. Maybe I'll be lucky and get through," Lois said. "Miracles have happened before. Charlie can try, too. He can use Norman's desk."
Her boss shrugged. "Okay by me. I haven't seen Norman for two days."
"Maybe he's with his family," Charlie ventured.
"More likely at the nearest bar," Lois said, unkindly. "Come on, pal, we have work to do."
"Do the phones still work with the power out?" Charlie asked.
"Of course they do," Lois said. "This is a newspaper, remember."
Perry held the door for them. "They installed a new PBX system for our phones last year," he explained. "The phones don't have a dial tone, and won't ring without power, but you can call outside."
"Oh," Charlie said.
The phone lines were still jammed an hour later. The congestion had been slowly clearing over the last day, but the power outage had undoubtedly sent the residents of Metropolis scurrying back to their phones, trying to find out what was wrong and when the problem was going to clear itself up. As a result, attempting to get through on a phone line was virtually an exercise in futility. Lois put down the receiver with more force than was strictly necessary and muttered a cuss word under her breath. Charlie glanced at her with a faint smile and she reminded herself how acute his ears were.
She looked around the room. From somewhere, Perry had dredged up a kerosene lantern, although its origin remained a mystery. Eduardo had unearthed one of his precious meditation candles and set it on the table by the coffee machine and Jimmy had appeared half an hour before with an old, battery-powered radio and another lantern, this one a Coleman, which he had inexplicably come across in one of the storerooms. He'd departed a few minutes afterwards on a quest for batteries and had not yet returned.
"If Jimmy doesn't get back with some batteries in a few minutes, I'm going home," she announced. "The power will probably be back on in a few hours, anyway."
Jimmy stepped out of the stairway at that moment. "Found some!" he announced, triumphantly, waving two D-cells. "Barry Jones left his flashlight down at the soda machine. I'll have to get him some more, later."
"Great," Lois said. "Let's see if we can find out what's going on."
The radio reception wasn't the best but eventually they found a reasonably clear frequency. Someone was reporting on the progress of the Asgard rocket, and then about the fact that the Metropolis International Airport was closed down. Planes were being diverted to Chicago. Finally, an update on the blackout informed them that power was reported to be out on the entire eastern seaboard. It appeared that a fire in a transformer in New Jersey had thrown the power load on the rest of the system and caused a cascading overload. Lois listened in silence. The entire power system was down. It just figured, she thought. As if they weren't having enough difficulties, this had to happen on top of it. It was probably part and parcel with everything else that was going on, caused by the Nightfall situation, but she could have done without it at just this moment. She picked up her purse and went to take her coat from the rack.
"Perry, I'm going home. I'll see you in the morning. Come on, Charlie."
Her apartment was both dark and cold when she unlocked the door to it twenty minutes later. Unlike the Daily Planet, she had nothing approaching a kerosene lantern but there were several candles in one of the drawers in her tiny kitchen and she made her way to it, guided by the light of the flashlight that she kept in her purse for emergencies.
Charlie apparently didn't need any such help. He moved about sure-footedly in a way that reminded her that he could see almost as well in the dark as he could by day and she envied him the ability, wondering at the same time what and where his origins might be that granted him such varied and extraordinary talents. Were there others like him who had the same skills, wherever he came from? Were there others like him here on Earth? If there were, maybe they would step in to save the Earth in his place.
She thought about that while she was lighting the first candle and decided that it wasn't something she could count on. The question of why Charlie was here occurred to her at least once an hour and so far she had come up with about a million conflicting theories but nothing that made much sense.
If he were some kind of alien invader, for instance, he certainly wasn't doing much of a job of conquering Earth. In fact, quite the opposite; he seemed to have gone out of his way to help rather than harm. Surely, though, he wouldn't have come here to play the part of some kind of secret, super-powered Good Samaritan, would he? That seemed like a pretty corny idea. The comics were full of guys like that, and she'd never bought the premise; it seemed silly.
So, discarding that particular scenario, what the heck was Charlie doing here?
"Charlie," she said, abruptly, "didn't you say that in your dream you were a kid, helping on a farm?"
"Yeah," Charlie said. "Why?"
"Is it possible you did grow up on a farm — maybe that farm you were pointing to in the photo?"
"I guess it's possible," Charlie said, somewhat doubtfully. "Why?"
"I guess I'm still trying to figure out why you're here. We kind of thought you've been on Earth for several years but that you arrived as an adult. But what if you got here as a child?"
"What makes you think that?" Charlie asked.
"It makes more sense," Lois said. "You know, you're definitely not an ordinary man, but you speak with a Midwestern accent and I can't make sense of why you're here, otherwise. Unless you're some kind of interplanetary cop or something."
Charlie made a face. "I don't think so. But if I grew up here, how do I get to so many places so fast? How did I get to Metropolis? What was that fireball that made the crater where you found me?"
Lois carefully fitted the candle into a candleholder and set it in the middle of her kitchen table. "I don't know. There's something I'm missing, obviously, but I'm not wrong about the fact that you aren't ordinary and you turned up just now in a completely weird way. I don't think that was a coincidence, Charlie. I think that you can save us from Nightfall, somehow. I just wish I could connect all the dots."
Charlie looked uncomfortable but her words had obviously made an impression on him, for he didn't dismiss them out of hand as he had done before. "I wish I could tell you, Lois," he said, slowly. "I want to help; believe me, I do. I want to know where I came from, and what I'm doing here — if I have a family: parents, or brothers and sisters. It's pretty scary not knowing. I want to know if I have a wife or kids someplace. Most of all, I don't want to remember too late to do any good." He reached out to take the second candle from her hands and she saw him frown. The wick sizzled slightly and a little flame sprang magically to life. "We have less than twenty-four hours," he said. "I have to remember soon or it won't matter." He turned to look out the window and Lois involuntarily followed his gaze.
The darkness was eerie. Above the lightless city, the stars blazed down in unfamiliar patterns. The moon was rising, but its light was cold and unfriendly. Out in space somewhere, a chunk of rock, three miles across, was hurtling toward their nearly defenseless planet, and all that stood between them and disaster was a single rocket armed with a nuclear warhead on its way to a violent rendezvous. There was too much emptiness out there, Lois thought, and she gave an involuntary shiver. Yes, the Asgard rocket had been programmed to intercept the asteroid, but so many things could go wrong.
Charlie shook himself suddenly. "I think you're right, Lois," he said, abruptly. "I think there *is* something I can do. Every time you say that, I get this *feeling* that I should be doing something and it scares the heck out of me. Whatever it is, I'd do it, if I could remember."
"Which is why you can't," she said. "Your subconscious mind is scared silly of what you'd have to do if you remembered. At least, that's what I think."
"So do I." He reached out to take the second candle holder from the table and fitted the candle into it, oblivious of the hot wax that was dripping onto his fingers. "Maybe I should go see Dr. Friskin again, tomorrow. Maybe it will help."
"Maybe," Lois said. She picked up the candle from the kitchen table and turned toward the living room. "Let's find you a place to sleep. My couch really isn't suited for somebody of your size. If I put down blankets and a pillow, would you be able to sleep on the rug?"
"Sure," he said, automatically. "Don't worry about me."
She glanced back at him as he followed her. His mouth was tight, and she could see the strain in his face. She set the candle down and turned to face him. "Look, we're not beaten yet. Why don't we see if we can get some rest? Tomorrow we can try to get hold of a phone book for Smallville, and maybe a copy of their newspaper, whatever it's called. If the power isn't on by tomorrow, we can get in the Jeep and drive west. Sooner or later we'll get out of the blacked out area. There's bound to be a library where we can find a computer and go online."
His expression relaxed slightly. "You think of everything."
"I wish I did," Lois said. "I'm doing the best I can, just like you are."
Charlie grinned reluctantly. "If all reporters could think like you, the quality of news reporting would be a lot higher," he said, unexpectedly. "I wish I'd met you a long time ago."
"Funny, I was thinking the same thing about you." Lois looked down. "Maybe things would have been different." She inhaled deeply and forcibly shook off the unaccustomed mood. "Enough of the 'what ifs'. What time is it? I can't read my watch in this light."
He glanced at her watch. "A few minutes after seven. Shall I go out and get us something to eat — if anything's open, that is?"
She shook her head, aware of a sense of uneasiness that she would never admit to him. "My supplies are kind of low but I'm sure we can find something here. I think I have some peanut butter and jelly. With the power out, I can't cook anything."
His face took on an odd expression. "I'll fix us something, if you'd like some hot food. I seem to have a source of power, even if it's not conventional."
The idea hadn't even occurred to her but, thinking about it, it seemed obvious. "Your heat vision! I hadn't thought of that! Do you think you can?"
"Well, I lit this candle a few minutes ago. I think I can manage."
Suddenly the answer to a question that had been bothering her for two days popped into her head. "I've got it!"
"That's how you shave!"
He stared at her, speechless, for several seconds. "Are you serious?"
"Sure! Look at it my way for a minute. Nothing we can buy from the drugstore will cut your beard but you were clean- shaven when we first met, so you obviously shave. Do you think you could control your heat vision gizmo well enough? I wouldn't want you to burn yourself."
"I guess I can try," Charlie said, the doubt gradually disappearing from his tone. "Look, why don't you go find something we can eat and I'll be in there in a few minutes to heat it up for us, all right?"
"You're going to try?" Lois asked.
"If you think I can, I'm willing to give it a shot." His teeth flashed whitely in the gloom. "Cross your fingers!"
She laughed suddenly. "Good luck! The bathroom is through there." She pointed. "But, you already know that, don't you? Try not to set anything on fire."
"I'll do my best," Charlie assured her.
Somehow, she thought that would be enough.
A hunt through her kitchen cupboards was a depressing exercise. A few minutes after her conversation with Charlie, Lois was surveying her findings in disgust. She had never been much of a cook but at the moment she was realizing that it was worse than she had thought. There were two cans of low fat chicken noodle soup, one of vegetable beef soup, three cans of green peas and one of pickled beets, although what had motivated her to buy it was now an open question. She had also discovered a box of stale crackers and a packet of powdered gravy. The pop tart box was empty and so was the jar of peanut butter.
Her refrigerator was worse. There was a small dab of butter left on the dish in the butter compartment, a box of long defunct mushrooms that she had bought with the intention of adding to a salad, a couple of withered lettuce leaves and a box of Chinese food that had seen better days. She tossed it into the trash en masse and regarded the ice cubes and a jar of strawberry preserves doubtfully. Maybe she could serve it on the crackers, she thought.
The sound of a footstep behind her made her turn and for a moment she simply stared.
In the time since she had spoken to him, Charlie's appearance had made a dramatic change. He was clean- shaven, as he had been when she had first met him, but this time he was neither naked nor covered with soot. His hair was combed neatly and he seemed like a completely different man. She had forgotten how he had looked when Jimmy had brought him back to the Bullpen after finding him some clothing, that first night at the Daily Planet, and he took her breath away.
"Wow," she said, after she recovered from her surprise. "You sure look different. I like it."
"I hoped you'd approve," he said. "It worked, as you can see."
"Yeah." She looked back at the food she had unearthed and grimaced. "I'm afraid I wasn't as successful. There isn't much here to eat."
Charlie looked over the collection rather thoughtfully. "I guess you weren't kidding when you said you needed to go shopping, were you? We can have some soup, though. Have you got a saucepan?"
Lois produced the required item. Charlie opened the can, dumped it into the pan, added water and set it on the stove. Lois saw him squint at the contents and a few seconds later, the liquid began to steam, gently. She turned back to her dish cupboard and found a pair of soup bowls.
Dinner wasn't exactly gourmet, but the soup was hot and filling. Lois tried not to think what things might be like if Nightfall hit. If it did, a can of soup might be as hard to find and as valuable as a diamond. It wasn't going to happen, she told herself, firmly. If the Asgard rocket didn't do the trick, maybe Charlie's memory would be forced to return. He wouldn't want to see the whole Earth destroyed — if he could just get past the fear that was blocking his memories.
When the pan was empty, Charlie collected the dishes, over her feeble protest. He simply grinned and proceeded to fill the sink with soapy water. Lois laughed and sat back down. "Are you always this determined?"
"My mother raised me to be a gentleman," he said. For a moment, neither of them spoke.
"Your *mother*?" Lois said, getting to her feet. "Charlie, you said your mother!"
"Yeah," Charlie said.
"Do you remember anything about her?"
Charlie's face was a study of concentration. "I don't know. Maybe. I seem to remember a little woman — blond, maybe in her late fifties — with glasses."
Lois put a hand on his arm. "Charlie, they're there — your memories. You're starting to remember!"
He nodded, starting to smile. "It's a little, anyway."
"Do you remember anything else? Your father? Any other family?"
His smile faded. "No."
She took his hand, ignoring the water and suds. "It's okay. You remembered."
"Maybe," he said. "I still can't remember the most important stuff, Lois."
"You will," she said, trying to sound confident. "You will, Charlie."
When the dishes had been done, they took the candles into the living room and Lois went into her room to find blankets and one of the pillows from her bed for Charlie. When she returned she looked around, unable for a moment to find her companion in the shadowy living room.
"Over here." Charlie was standing by the window, looking out over Metropolis. Beyond the window, the darkness and the silence were almost shocking. On any ordinary night, the streets were always lit up and there was an almost unnoticed hum of noise. The stars would be invisible and even the full moon was hard to see because of the light pollution provided by the bustling city. Metropolis never really slept. People were always on the streets no matter what the hour. Except tonight.
Lois dropped the bedding on the couch and came to join him. Neither said anything for long moments. Finally, Charlie said, "It's frightening to think how it could all be gone by this time tomorrow."
"I know. It hasn't happened yet, though."
"There's the rocket," Charlie said. "If it misses, I'm afraid I won't be able to remember in time, Lois. My memory seems to be coming back so slowly. I won't be able to live with myself if I could have stopped it and was too cowardly to take the risk."
"Charlie, it's not cowardice," Lois said. "You want to help. The part of your mind doing this to you isn't reasonable."
"I don't see the difference," Charlie said. "The whole world is a lot more important than my safety."
"Your thinking mind knows that," she said. "The subconscious doesn't care. It doesn't reason. It's just afraid."
"If that's not cowardice, I don't know what is," Charlie said, bitterly. "Everything you've found out or deduced about me in the last three days says I'm somebody who can probably help. *I* think I can probably help — and I'm too damned scared to do the job! Some instinct in me would rather I sacrificed the whole world rather than do whatever it is I need to do! If it's possible to hate myself, then I do!"
"Don't, Charlie." Lois laid a hand on his arm. "It's not your fault. I know you'll help, if you can. You're the kind of person who goes out of his way to help people who need it. If there's anything I've learned since we met, it's that. I didn't think people like you existed."
She could see the black silhouette of his face turned toward her in the darkness, and his eyes reflected the dim light from the two candles burning on the coffee table. "Why not?" he asked, and his voice was soft and puzzled. "You *are* that kind of person, Lois. Don't you even believe in yourself?"
Unexpectedly, she was aware of a deep sense of shame. "Charlie, when I started out to help you, it wasn't really for you. It was because I was curious and because it gave me something to do rather than think about what was probably going to happen in a few days. Don't give me any more credit than I deserve."
"I know," he said, completely surprising her. "But it didn't stay that way, did it?"
"Well…no." She hadn't thought about it that way. "I guess I got personally involved. It's a bad habit I have — always getting involved with my stories. I end up caring about the people I'm writing about, and I shouldn't. It's not 'maintaining a proper journalistic distance' as one of my old college professors would say."
"And that's a bad thing?" Charlie asked. "It just proves what I said before. You're the kind of person who goes out of her way to help. If there were more people who did that, the world would be in better shape." He put his free hand over hers. "I think you probably have more courage than I do. If you were in my place, I can't see you hiding behind a memory loss to avoid doing something that scared you. I have the feeling you'd probably charge out, full steam ahead, to take it on."
"I think you will, too," she said. "When it comes right down to hiding or saving what's important to you, I think that something in you will force you to remember because you won't be able to face losing the important things. I think you value Earth and the people on it too much to let it die."
"You have more confidence than I do," Charlie said, but he sounded more hopeful. "I only wish I knew…"
It was nearly a full minute before he replied and Lois had begun to believe that she wasn't going to get an answer.
He had turned to look out the window again and she saw only his profile, outlined against the stars. "I wish…" he started again, and his voice had dropped until she had to strain her ears to hear the words. "I just wish I knew if I were married."
Lois's alarm clock didn't wake her up, since the power was out. She had gone to bed late and spent a couple of hours tossing and turning before accumulated fatigue finally overwhelmed her rebellious brain. Even then, her dreams were restless, full of pointless action and when she opened her eyes, her mind felt dull and numb, the way it always did when she hadn't managed to get enough rest.
Charlie had been sitting by the window when she had said goodnight, still staring out at the ghostly city. Lois crawled reluctantly out of bed and grabbed her robe from the back of the chair. It was light outside but the normal racket caused by the morning traffic was missing. The morning had an unreal quality to it.
There was no sound in the other room. Suddenly unreasonably apprehensive that Charlie might have disappeared during the night, she hurried to the door of her bedroom and looked out.
The blankets were still on the floor and the pillow had the imprint of Charlie's head, but at first glance, he was nowhere to be seen. Lois stepped out into the living room. "Charlie?"
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a flash of movement as something dropped from a spot near the ceiling. An alarmed yell and a crash brought her completely around. Charlie, dressed only in a pair of boxers, was sprawled awkwardly on the carpet, looking startled. The tableau remained frozen for several seconds, and then he pushed himself into a sitting position, an expression of complete bewilderment on his features.
Lois remained still for several seconds, unable to speak. "What happened?" she asked, finally.
"I'm not sure." His voice sounded as confused as he looked. "Did I sleepwalk?"
She glanced involuntarily upward and then around the floor. "What fell?"
"Fell?" Charlie also looked around. "I don't see anything."
There didn't seem to be anything around except Charlie and he certainly couldn't have been sticking to the ceiling, she thought. Still, she was sure she had seen something fall and she had definitely not imagined the loud thud. It had been too large to be a bird or animal — and what would an animal be doing in her apartment, anyway? Still…
"Something fell from the ceiling — I think," she said, "and I don't see anything around but you. Do you have some kind of ability to climb walls, too?"
Charlie looked at his hands, the bewildered expression deepening. "I don't think so."
"Let me see your hands." The completely irrational suspicion that it had been Charlie who had fallen from the ceiling wouldn't quite go away. Charlie held his hands out to her and she examined them closely. They seemed no different than the hands of any ordinary man, although she knew they were considerably stronger. She looked up at the ceiling again.
Charlie looked up, too. "What are you looking for?"
"I'm not sure. I thought I saw something fall from the ceiling and then I heard that crash and you were there. You weren't on the ceiling, were you?"
The look he gave her was slightly incredulous. "I don't see how. I woke up on the floor. I must have fallen over something."
"Yeah…I guess so." She rubbed her eyes. "Maybe I imagined it. I was still sleepy."
"I think you must have," he said. "I'd have had to fly. Besides, I was asleep."
"Have you ever sleepwalked before?" she asked.
He shrugged. "How would I know? Uh…" He broke off, looking down at his nearly unclad form. "I guess we should get dressed."
Lois had been trying unsuccessfully not to stare at the broad expanse of chest he was displaying. Now, she looked away with an effort. "Yeah, I guess so." She glanced quickly down at herself. She had worn an old pair of flannel pajamas last night, for warmth. The apartment had been cold without the services of the building's central heating. Last year, the owners of the apartment house had replaced the ancient furnace with an electric one and as a result, the power outage had left the tenants without means to warm their apartments. "I guess I'd better get my bath."
The water was also ice cold, as Lois discovered when she ran water into the tub, and it remained cold. She might have expected it, she thought, but old habits died hard. She turned the water off in disgust. "It just figures!" she said, aloud.
"Is something wrong?" Charlie's voice called.
"The water's cold! This could be the last hot bath I ever have, and the water's cold!"
"Oh." Silence for a minute. "Fill up the tub and I'll heat it for you."
That hadn't occurred to her. She turned on the water again. "You know, you could be pretty handy to have around."
After a deliciously hot bath, Lois picked out clothing while Charlie showered. Apparently, the icy water didn't bother him, for she heard the shower running and a few minutes later, he emerged from the bathroom clean and shaven. She looked him over quickly. "Are you ready?"
He nodded. "Have you had a chance to get breakfast?"
"Yeah. I had a few of the crackers. Maybe we can find someplace open after we get out of Metropolis."
Charlie made a face. "That doesn't sound very nutritious."
"Well, it's better than nothing," she pointed out. "There isn't much else to eat."
"I can heat up the vegetable beef soup," he suggested.
"I'll bring along a couple of mugs and a bottle of water and you can heat it up for lunch," Lois suggested. "There's no guarantee that we're going to find a place to eat. We don't know how far to the west the blackout goes."
"I hadn't thought of that," he said. "Don't forget a can opener. Are we going to stop by the Daily Planet first?"
Lois nodded. "Just for a minute. I want to tell Perry where we're going."
The streets were completely quiet when they emerged from the apartment house. Lois looked up and down the block, but the only moving things were the bare branches of trees and a few scraps of paper blown by the wind. The sky was a brilliant blue, dotted by little scudding clouds.
"It's like a ghost town," she murmured.
Charlie didn't answer. Lois unlocked the door for him and he tossed the small bag of provisions into the rear before climbing into the passenger seat. The roar of the motor was unnaturally loud in the silence as she started the engine, put the Jeep in gear and pulled away from the curb.
Charlie glanced sideways at her. "Do you mind if I turn on the radio?"
"No, of course not. Go ahead."
Her favorite music station was off the air. Charlie turned the dial, searching for a frequency that had something other than static to broadcast. LNN must have an emergency power generator, Lois thought, a few minutes later when the voice of an announcer burst suddenly from the speakers. They were coming through loud and clear and were apparently in contact with someone at EPRAD for the newscasters were giving ten minute updates on the progress of the Asgard rocket, although there was still over four hours until it was expected to contact Nightfall. As for the power situation, a maintenance crew was working on the transformer and there was no estimate on when the repairs would be finished. Lois made a face at the information. It looked as if she and Charlie were going to have to put her alternate plan into action after all.
"Charlie, get some of the maps of the area west of here out of the glove compartment," she told him, pulling the Jeep up to the curb in front of the Planet. "We want to find a town outside the blackout area, large enough to have a public library where we can get Internet access."
Charlie nodded and reached out to open the glove compartment. A cascade of double fudge crunch bars greeted him as he pulled the little door open.
"Huh," Lois said, reaching out to snag one. "I forgot about those. Have one, if you're hungry. I'll be back in a minute."
By the time she returned to the Jeep, Charlie had located a map of the country to the west of Metropolis. Several towns dotted the route, and they finally decided to simply drive west along one of the main highways until they reached one where the power was on. Then they would locate a public library and go from there. Lois glanced at her watch before she shifted into drive. It was ten-thirty; in approximately three and a half hours, they would know whether or not the Asgard rocket was successful. She was aware of a tightness in her gut, reminiscent of her days in school just before an important exam. They were getting down to the wire. If the rocket missed, the only thing left to save human civilization was Charlie — if, indeed, their suppositions were right.
She wasn't wrong about this, she told herself. Somehow, Charlie was connected to the fireball and to Nightfall. The extraordinary man sitting next to her had come from who-knew-where to try to help them. But now, it was a race against time to try to retrieve his memory before time ran out. After that — well, they would see what happened, if anything remained of the civilization that humanity had so painfully built over thousands of years. After his remark last night, she was more certain than ever that he was interested in her more than just as a friend. If he were free… well, was she interested in pursuing a relationship with him? He wasn't Claude, or any of the other men in her past. Unless his personality changed drastically when he regained his memory — and assuming he had no other prior obligations such as a wife — he could very well be the man she'd been looking for all her life and never believed she would meet. It wasn't the superhuman abilities, although they were astonishing enough. If Claude had possessed them, it wouldn't have impressed her in the least because Claude had been a miserable excuse for a human being. It was simply that Charlie was a man who had integrity, honor and kindness. He cared about other people. He might or might not be human, but it didn't matter. He was everything the men in her past hadn't been.
Of course, once he recovered his memory, he might not be interested in her that way, anymore. Even if he wasn't, though, she was sure he would remain her friend. She trusted him, and she couldn't say that about many people.
Getting onto the main route took much less time than it might have on another day because of the lack of traffic. Lois saw a total of three cars on the surface streets of Metropolis and two of them were police cars. Once, she was pulled over by a squad car but when the officer saw her press credentials, he let her go with an admonition to be careful. On the interstate highway at last, Lois put her foot down on the accelerator. It was time to make some speed.
"How far west does this dratted blackout go?" Lois grumbled, a little under two and a half hours later. "Is everything on the same power grid?"
"I guess so," Charlie said. "Sooner or later, we've got to reach the end of it, though. I just hope it's not too late by the time we do."
"Me, too. I've got just under half a tank of gas left. I'm going to have to start back pretty soon."
Charlie didn't say anything more, but Lois noticed the hand that lay on the armrest had clenched itself into a fist.
The radio had been counting down the time until impact of the Asgard rocket and Lois debated, again, whether to shut it off. The suspense was almost unbearable but it would probably be just as bad not listening. So far, the rocket was reported to be right on course for the mammoth asteroid. Maybe, she kept telling herself, maybe everything would be all right. Maybe the rocket would blow Nightfall into space dust. Then, Charlie's memory would very probably come back on its own and the mystery of his origin would be solved. She couldn't help praying that everything would end on an anticlimax. This was one time she didn't want a big story. She only wanted it to be over and everything to go back to being like it was before.
"There's another town coming up," Charlie said, suddenly. "Willow Rock. The exit is in four miles."
"Cross your fingers," Lois said.
Charlie flashed her a nervous smile.
They took the exit a few moments later and Lois was aware of an almost physical shock when the off ramp exited onto a road where a red light directed them to stop. The town had power!
Charlie was sitting up in the seat, his expression a sharp contrast to the worried scowl that he had worn for the past hundred or so miles. The light turned green and Lois pulled ahead. "Now, to find a library!"
The town of Willow Rock boasted a population of 25,054, Lois noted, as they approached the city limits sign. It wasn't exactly a booming center of commerce but it was surely large enough to have a public library. A moment later, they were cruising down the main street of the town.
The atmosphere here was different than it had been in Metropolis, she thought. The streets were not deserted, for one thing. Although the traffic was still a little sparse, there were at least a score of vehicles within view and a respectable number of people strolled along the sidewalks. Christmas decorations arched across the street and the old-fashioned lamp posts were wound with silver garlands. Every store window glittered with some kind of tribute to the holiday season and a Christmas tree lot was open and, if not doing a brisk business, at least several people were moving about among the rows of trees, obviously concentrating on something besides the incipient end of the world.
"There's a gas station," Charlie said, pointing. "It's probably got a phone booth."
Lois simply nodded, already signaling to turn. "Look at the gas prices, though! Ten dollars a gallon is pretty steep!"
"No worse than Jilly's, though," Charlie pointed out.
"True." Lois scowled at the station's sign. "Highway robbery. It's a good thing I've still got enough gas to get back to Metropolis without a refill. We'd be stranded. Maybe by tomorrow, prices will be back to normal."
"Let's hope so," Charlie agreed. "There's a telephone booth." He was already unfastening his seat belt as Lois pulled into a parking space. "I'll check the phone book."
"Okay." She turned off the motor and set the brake. "While you're doing that, I think I'll stretch my legs."
"The restrooms are inside the convenience store," he said, opening the door. He waved at the sign. "They sell sandwiches, too."
Lois smiled but didn't answer as she stepped out onto the pavement. "Back in a minute."
A few minutes later, Lois returned to the Jeep clutching a pair of wrapped sandwiches and two bottles of flavored iced tea. Charlie was already waiting in the car, listening to the radio. LNN was still following the progress of the rocket, of course, and the reporter was interviewing an amateur astronomer who had been tracking the asteroid swarm. Charlie switched off the radio as she opened the door.
"The library is in the same building as the County Sheriff's Office and City Hall," he said. "It's on Main Street. That should make things simpler."
"I hope so," Lois said. "Zero hour for the rocket is in just under forty minutes. And four hours after that —"
"Yeah," Charlie said. "Zero hour for Earth."
In spite of the information, it took them another ten minutes to find the building, park the Jeep and locate the library, a small section of the not particularly large building that housed the Sheriff's station and City Hall. Acutely aware of every second as it slipped away, Lois pushed the door open, not knowing quite what to expect in a small town library, but the place looked much the same as any other library she had visited — simply smaller. A single librarian looked up from her desk when they approached her station.
"May I help you?"
"I hope so," Lois said. "Do you have Internet access here?"
"Certainly," the little woman said, briskly. "We have two computers in the computer room. That way." She indicated the direction with one finger. "If I can be of help, let me know."
They followed her pointing finger and Lois closed her eyes in a sigh of relief when she saw the computers. They were older models, but both were similar to the ones at the Daily Planet. "Thank goodness. At least I know how to run these things. I'll take this one, you take the other."
Charlie nodded silently. He glanced upward at the big, round wall clock and, involuntarily, Lois followed the direction of his gaze. The hands pointed to one thirty- five. Maybe the clock was fast, she told herself. Time seemed to be running faster and faster as the deadline approached. She only hoped that if they found what they needed to know, that Charlie had some way of calling his ship or whatever he used, or getting to it in time to do some good. Nightfall was within the orbit of the moon, now. Armageddon was thundering toward them at 30,000 miles per hour, and their options were running out as fast as their time.
"Lois, I've found their web page," Charlie announced. "There's a picture of their city hall and a listing of their hotels and so forth."
"Anything useful?" she asked, wearily. A glance at the wall clock almost made her heart climb into her throat. She looked quickly away. Watching the countdown wasn't going to help anything.
"Maybe," he said. "This is the Smallville Chamber of Commerce's web page. It says they're a rural community, with a population of 17,015 people, according to this, and they were founded in 1809 by a Kermit Harris and several other families." He was frowning at the page. "They have a Corn Festival every fall…and a small wine industry, believe it or not. They've got pictures of some of the more scenic areas — apparently they do get tourists who like the quiet atmosphere of the town." He looked up from the screen. "Lois, I've seen this town hall before. And here's a picture of Napier Park. And the Smallville Golf Club."
"Smallville has a golf club?" Lois asked, momentarily diverted.
"Yeah. And — " He frowned, rubbing his eyes. "It has a newspaper-'The Smallville Press'. There's a picture of it here with the staff posing in front of it — two women: Jennifer Douglas and Marian Rogers, and the guy in the middle — Tom Bristol — is the editor. Or, at least they were the staff. This picture is dated two years ago."
Lois craned her neck to look at the computer screen. "Does any of it look familiar?"
Charlie rubbed his eyes again. "Yeah. I've seen it before. Tom Bristol isn't the editor anymore. He was killed in an accident last year."
He was staring at her, wide-eyed. "I remembered!"
"Do you remember anything else?"
"Sort of. I think I might have worked there, maybe."
"You're a reporter?" Lois asked.
"I think I might be." He covered his eyes. "I'm not sure —"
Lois was on her feet. "We need to find a phone!"
There was a phone in the hall outside the little library. Lois dialed Information and held her breath while the phone rang. At least the lines weren't jammed, she thought. Perhaps in these last minutes before the Asgard booster intercepted Nightfall, people were glued to their televisions instead of using the phones. At last the operator responded and Lois asked for the number of The Smallville Press in Smallville, Kansas. The computerized voice came on, gave her the number, which she copied with a shaking hand, and offered to connect her. Lois punched in the number of her phone card and waited.
"It's ringing!" she whispered, exultantly, although why she was whispering never occurred to her.
"Smallville Press, Jennifer speaking. How may I help you?" a feminine voice said.
Lois took a deep breath. "Hello?" Her voice tried to shake and she managed to steady it. "My name is Lois Lane, from the Daily Planet in Metropolis. May I speak to your editor, please?"
"Is this a joke?" the woman's voice asked, a little suspiciously. "Why would the Daily Planet be calling us?"
"It's not a joke," Lois said, quickly. "I'm trying to track down someone. Is your editor available?"
"Mr. Kent is home with the flu," Jennifer's voice told her.
"Well, maybe you can help me," Lois pursued. "We have a man here with amnesia, who may come from Smallville. We found him under unusual circumstances, three nights ago, and he remembers your newspaper. He might have worked there at one time."
"Are you kidding?" Jennifer's voice said, sounding very skeptical and angry. "Who is this really? Millie if this is you, you're in real trouble, girl! I don't have time for this nonsense right now. Good bye!"
It was too late. Jennifer had hung up.
Lois fished frantically in her purse for the phone card, muttering under her breath. Charlie put a hand on her arm.
"Wait a minute, Lois. She's just going to hang up on you again. Let's try another angle."
"She said her editor was Mr. Kent. Let's try Information again. How many Kents are there likely to be in a town the size of Smallville?"
"Who knows? If one of the founding families was a Kent, they could be all over the place."
"Well, it can't hurt to try. Unless you can find an online phone book of Smallville."
"Jimmy might be able to dig one up," Lois said, "but I must not know where to look or something because I wasn't able to. I guess we'll give your way a try."
It took four tries to get through to Information again but at last, Lois was punching in the numbers of her phone card once more. There were three numbers for Kents in town. Aubrey Kent was a barber, George Kent, M.D. was a podiatrist and the third was Jonathan Kent, no profession given. Lois crossed her fingers as the phone began to ring.
"Hello?" It was a woman's voice.
"Hello," Lois said. "My name is Lois Lane. May I speak to Mr. Kent, please?"
"Just a moment," the voice said. "May I ask why?"
"Is this Mrs. Kent?" Lois asked.
"Yes, it is."
"Mrs. Kent, my name is Lois Lane. I'm a reporter for the Daily Planet in Metropolis."
There was a long pause. "I see." The woman's voice had become wary. "Why would the Daily Planet be interested in my husband? He's just a farmer."
"I'm actually trying to find the Mr. Kent who's the editor of The Smallville Press," Lois said. "I need his help. Would you know how I could contact him?"
"Our son is the editor of the paper but he has the flu," Mrs. Kent's voice said. "I don't see how he could —"
"Let me explain," Lois said. "This is really a strange story, but it's not a joke. Three nights ago, I found a man with amnesia in Metropolis, under really strange circumstances. He thinks he may live in Smallville and may work or have worked for the newspaper at one time. We're trying to contact someone who might be able to help us to identify him."
There was what sounded like a sharply indrawn breath on the other end of the phone. "I might be able to help," Mrs. Kent's voice said. The wariness had disappeared and the woman's voice sounded as if she was throttling down some emotion: excitement, perhaps? "Can you describe this man?"
"Yes, certainly," Lois said. She could see Charlie's face, and tell that he was listening, tensely. "He's about six feet tall, with an olive complexion, black hair and dark brown eyes." She examined Charlie's face, trying to spot some sort of identifying characteristic that was unique to him. "He's-um — very good-looking," she continued, "very well built, like he works out, and he's got a little freckle or birthmark over the right side of his upper lip. Do you know anyone who fits that description?"
There was a faint gasp on the other end of the phone. "Yes," Mrs. Kent's voice said, sounding a little breathless. "I know him. He's been missing for three days. May…Is he there? May I speak to him?"
Charlie was holding out his hand. Lois put the receiver into it.
"Hello?" Charlie's voice sounded tentative. "Mrs. Kent?"
"Oh, honey, we thought you were dead!"
For Charlie, the sound of the voice on the other end of the phone produced a wave of familiarity. "Do you…do you know me?" he asked, aware that his voice had begun to shake.
There was a short silence. "You don't remember?"
"Not much," he said, honestly. "Your voice sounds familiar, but —"
"Honey, I'm your mother." The woman's voice was full of concern, mixed with what was unmistakably relief. "You're my son, Clark."
"I — I don't understand. You said your son had the flu — or do you have another son?" Charlie asked, feeling more and more confused. "Can he do all these strange things, too?"
"No, honey. You're the only son we have. We adopted you when you were a baby. We had to have an explanation for why you didn't come to work for the past three days so we told everyone that you had the flu. Do you remember what you were doing before you wound up in Metropolis?"
"I — Lois found me," he found himself saying. "There was a fireball and she followed it. She found me in the hole it made."
"Are you all right? Are you hurt at all?"
"I don't seem to be," he said, "except that I can't remember much."
"Oh, heavens." Her voice paused for an instant and when it returned it had become almost businesslike. "Now, listen to me, Clark. This is important but you can't tell anyone. You went to stop Nightfall. Do you remember anything about it?"
Lois had been right, he thought. This woman who said she was his mother, and whose voice sounded so familiar, was confirming what he and Lois had figured out over the past three days. "How was I supposed to stop Nightfall?" he whispered. "We — Lois and I — thought that might be what I —"
"She knows?" his mother's voice said, suddenly concerned. "She's a reporter! Clark —"
"It's all right," he interrupted. He could almost visualize the face that went with the voice and at once understood her concern. "She hasn't told anyone; she *isn't* going to tell anyone. She's just trying to help me remember. If the rocket doesn't stop the asteroid…"
Lois's hand closed on his wrist. "Someone's coming," she whispered.
"Just a minute," he said into the phone.
A door opened farther down the hall and a uniformed woman emerged. She hurried past them, barely glancing at the two strangers. Charlie looked up, suddenly aware of something. Outside a radio was blaring.
"The Asgard rocket has failed. Repeat, a collision with a smaller piece of the asteroid swarm has deflected the rocket…"
"Listen to me, Clark. This is your father." The suddenly male voice on the other end of the phone startled him. "I don't know how long this connection will last. The phones have been going in and out all day. You have to remember. I don't know if you heard what just happened. Another one of those rocks out there hit the rocket and deflected it. It missed its target. We need you — everyone needs you to remember. You shattered Nightfall three nights ago. That was why it broke up."
"*How* did I do it, though?" he asked, aware that his voice was perilously close to a wail. "I can do all these strange things, but I can't *get* to Nightfall to stop it! I don't know how!"
"Clark, you have to understand this and believe me. You flew up to it. You used your mother's scuba gear to breathe in space. You won't need that now. The asteroid is much closer and you can hold your breath for twenty minutes at a time. The lack of air pressure doesn't affect you. You have to do it, son. You're the last chance Earth has."
"Clark!" His mother's voice overlapped his father's. "We'll explain everything if we survive to do it. You have four hours to figure out how. Honey, if we could get there to help you, we would. If you've found out some of the things about yourself, trust us, please. One of your powers is flight. You can stop this thing."
"But how do I —"
The phone went dead.
"The lines are jammed," Lois said, "I can't even get an operator."
"I guess it figures," Charlie said. "The rocket missed, so everyone is trying to get hold of their relatives."
Lois hung up the receiver and glanced around at the police officers hurrying by in the suddenly crowded hall. "Come on. Let's get back to the Jeep where we can talk."
Charlie nodded and, without a word, followed her toward the double doors that led to the street.
The sun was still bright when they stepped outside but heavy dark clouds had begun to mass in the east. That was more appropriate, Lois thought, considering what was hanging imminently over their heads. Still, she was just as glad not to be in Metropolis right now, if the power was still out. A snowstorm wasn't likely to make the situation any more bearable.
The residents of Willow Rock were gathered together in small groups, she saw, talking quietly, now and then glancing up at the sky. A man in the uniform of a sheriff's deputy was standing on the sidewalk by a police car, talking to another deputy behind the wheel. As they watched, three more on motorcycles went by.
"Gearing up for a disaster," Lois said. "Charlie, what did Mrs. Kent tell you?"
"She knows me," Charlie said. "And you were right."
"Right about what? Nightfall?"
He nodded. "Wait until we're in the Jeep."
The Cherokee was parked in the lot behind the building. When she scrambled into the driver's seat and closed the door behind her, she turned and grabbed Charlie by the front of the watermelon-colored shirt. "What did she say?"
"She said I'd gone to stop Nightfall." Charlie gently removed her hands from his shirt. "It was me who shattered it three nights ago. I mean," he corrected, meticulously, "it was I."
"Never mind the fine points of grammar," she said. "Did she say *how*?"
"Her husband told me that I *flew* up to it. They said one of my powers was flight."
Lois's first instinct was to deny it. It was simply too impossible.
But, was it? Charlie could set fires with his eyes, he was unbelievably strong and fast, his hearing was as acute as an animal's. Not to mention, when a man wielding a battleaxe had attacked him, the blade had broken on his head. Was the ability to fly so much more unbelievable?
Something clicked in her brain. "This morning in the apartment. I *knew* I saw something fall. It was *you*! You must have been flying in your sleep."
"I guess so," Charlie said. "But how do I fly, Lois? I don't know how."
"And how did you shatter the asteroid?" Lois added. "Did you blast it with a ray gun or something?"
"I don't think so." Charlie was staring at his hands as if he had never seen them before. "Mr. Kent said I flew up there to stop Nightfall. I used scuba gear to breathe in space. That doesn't sound like I have a bunch of advanced technology to work with, does it? I think I must have rammed it to make it break up like that. That's probably why I couldn't remember anything afterwards."
It was all falling into place, now that the final piece of the puzzle was in their hands, Lois thought, even if they didn't know exactly where to fit it in. Even the way that they had met was suddenly clear. "Charlie, *you* were the fireball!"
"The fireball that caused the crater. It was you." She put her hand out to rest it on the back of one of his. "Charlie, don't you see? You rammed the asteroid and shattered it — and you almost didn't make it back. Something like that had to have strained even your powers. You must have come in like a meteor, so fast that the heat burned off your clothes. That was why I found you in the crater: because you made the crater, yourself."
He was nodding. "It makes sense. I tried to destroy Nightfall once and it almost killed me. I couldn't remember because I was afraid to try it again."
He turned a stricken face toward her. "The problem is, I *still* don't know how! I know I'm supposed to be able to fly, but I haven't a clue how to do it! How am I supposed to relearn how to fly in less than four hours?"
Lois let go of his hand and turned to start the engine. "We're going to find someplace around here where you can practice. Nightfall is a lot closer than it was three nights ago. If you can remember how to get there, it shouldn't be as hard, this time. Earth may not be much but it's all the human race has. We've got to figure it out."
"Nosy busybodies," Lois was muttering somewhat less than an hour later. "You'd think they'd have something better to do than ask us what we're doing on top of an apartment house. Aren't the police supposed to be concentrating on preventing panic or something?"
"I think they're afraid people might try to kill themselves," Charlie said. They were walking away from a shabby building on the west side of Willow Rock. Behind them, two sheriff's deputies stood watching them, a little suspiciously. "I'm not sure they bought your story, but they didn't have any real proof you were lying."
"That's where press credentials come in handy," Lois said. "Come on. Let's go find some place that the police aren't patrolling."
"I still don't know how I'm supposed to do this," Charlie said. "Do I flap my arms or something?"
The image made her give a snort of laughter in spite of herself. "I don't think so. I didn't notice any flapping this morning. I came out into the living room and nothing was moving. I didn't see you, and I said your name, and out of the corner of my eye I saw something —you — fall from the ceiling. You must have been flying — or floating — in your sleep, I guess, so however you do it, I don't think it's anything physical. Maybe it's some kind of mental control or something. Kind of like your heat vision. It only comes on when you want it to."
He nodded soberly. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense, but I sure hope my heat vision doesn't come on in my sleep."
"Well, you're eyes are closed then, so it probably wouldn't matter. Maybe it's more like sleepwalking or something," Lois hazarded. "Sleep-flying? Whatever it is, it must be pretty easy for you once you get the hang of it, or you couldn't do it in your sleep."
"Probably not," he agreed. "So what am I supposed to do — think 'fly'? I've been doing that, and nothing seems to happen."
"I think that's because you don't really believe it," she said, trying to sound positive. "Or, maybe you're even blocking yourself unconsciously. How did you make your heat vision come on the first time?"
"Well, it was kind of a game," he admitted, half-shrugging. "I didn't really think I could do it, so…" His expression slowly changed to realization. "So, I wasn't holding myself back, was I?"
"I guess not," she said, pleased that he'd come to the conclusion, himself.
"So, where do you want to go?"
"Maybe we should go somewhere outside of town," Lois suggested. "We don't have much time. You have to have a margin of time to get to that monster before it hits us."
"Right. Besides, there are more asteroids in that swarm than just Nightfall. Some are big enough to cause damage if they hit, even if they're not world-destroying ones. If I can figure this out, maybe I can stop some of them, as well as Nightfall — if I have the time."
"Whoa there," Lois said. "Let's concentrate on the flying part, first. Then we'll talk about how you'll use it. Do me a favor, though."
"Anything." He met her eyes and smiled that charmingly shy smile that told her that it wasn't a flippant answer.
"If we do figure this out, don't ram any of the asteroids, okay? There must be a safer way to do it than slamming into them with your head, as hard as it is."
He made a face and his smile became a little embarrassed. Lois said nothing further, satisfied that she'd made her point. Inwardly, however, she was elated. Without realizing it, Charlie was beginning to think of ways to *use* his talent rather than about the danger it could put him in. That had to be a step forward. But, they still had to figure out how he flew.
"Looks like a storm coming," Charlie said, irrelevantly. Lois glanced up. The clouds she had noticed earlier now covered half the sky and all at once, there was a flicker of lightning. A moment later, thunder growled in the distance. The wind was starting to pick up, as well, something she had not noticed earlier. A gust of icy air hit her in the face as they approached the Cherokee and Lois was glad to get inside. She hadn't really noticed before, but the weather had gotten considerably colder in the last hour.
"Where do you want to go, now?" Charlie asked.
"Let's head for a place a little farther out of town," she said, starting the motor. "If you do manage to fly, I don't think either of us wants anyone to see you."
Charlie only nodded. She could almost see the wheels turning in his head as she glanced back and pulled out of the parking space.
"Thanks," he said, suddenly.
"For keeping what I can do a secret. For helping me."
"Hey, I have something I want out of this, too," she said, with a slight grin. "I want you to save me from Nightfall."
"I think that's pretty reasonable," Charlie said. He looked out the window at the clouds that were creeping across the blueness of the afternoon sky. "You've done an awful lot for me, Lois."
"Yeah, well we're not done yet." She turned down a side street. "There."
She waved generally at a vacant lot behind a three-story, wooden building. "There's nobody around that I can see. If we don't draw attention, I think we can use this place."
Charlie was glancing discreetly around. "I don't see anyone — and I don't hear anybody inside, either."
"Perfect," Lois said. "There's a fire escape on the side of the building, too. Can you boost me up so I can get the ladder?"
Charlie didn't reply. Lois maneuvered into the lot and pulled to a stop in a spot where the building itself concealed the Cherokee from the view of anyone passing by on the street. She cut the engine and glanced at him. "Shall we go?"
He opened his door. "You still haven't explained exactly why we have to get up high to practice. I can think 'fly' just as well from the ground."
"I want you to get used to the feeling of height," Lois answered, aware that the explanation sounded lame, even to her. One of Charlie's thick eyebrows slid upward in a manner so familiar that she almost laughed despite the gravity of the situation. "You look just like Spock on Star Trek when you do that," she said. "And considering that you're probably an alien, besides…"
"But, I don't have the ears," he protested.
She looked at the anatomy in question. "Well, they *are* a little pointed, but I agree, you're definitely not a Vulcan."
"No question of that," he muttered, running a hand over one ear.
"Last I heard, they couldn't fly," Lois said, clinching the matter. "Come on. Let's go."
A short time later, they were standing on the roof of the narrow, wooden building that housed a small market, a hardware store and a bicycle shop.
"Don't get anywhere near the front," Lois said. "I don't want the sheriff's guys to come up here after us."
"I won't," Charlie said. He glanced over the low wall that ran around the edge of the roof. "Funny how much farther away the ground looks than you expect it to."
Lois resolutely didn't look down. "Charlie, we have to figure this out," she said, pulling him back to the reason for their presence on the roof. "I want you to stand up on the wall and think 'fly'. Got that?"
He threw a doubtful glance at her. "You're kidding, right?"
"No, I'm not. You *can* fly. You were on the ceiling of my apartment this morning. That means it's not hard once you get the hang of it." She glanced at her watch. "It's after three. The asteroid is going to hit somewhere in the Pacific Ocean at about six. Time's running out."
He swallowed and seemed to gather his nerve. "You're right." Without another word, he stepped up on the wall. Lois could swear his complexion went a shade or two paler as he looked down. "All right, now what?"
"Now, you're going to fly," Lois said, determinedly. "Are you ready?"
Charlie looked down again. "I'm not sure this is such a good idea."
"Don't look down," Lois commanded. "Look up. Ready?"
"Do you want some help?"
He gulped again. "Give me a count, okay?"
"Okay," Lois said. "Here goes…on three. One…two…" On two, she gathered her nerve, placed her hands on his muscular buttocks and shoved.
Charlie gave a yell of panic as he plunged over the edge, and then fell straight down. For a second, Lois felt her stomach turn over as he dropped toward the pavement below, even knowing that he couldn't be hurt. He struck the ground awkwardly face down, lay still a moment and then pushed himself up on his hands. Lois was already descending the fire escape as fast as she could as he cast a startled look up at her.
"Charlie, are you all right?" she called.
"Uh…yeah. Yeah, I'm fine." She could barely hear the words as she nearly fell down the ladder toward him. She reached the ground in record time, to find him dusting his clothing off.
"Charlie, I'm sorry! I thought that if…"
He gave a slightly shaky half-chuckle. "I know what you thought. It's okay. We both knew the fall couldn't have hurt me. I was just — well, surprised."
It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but she still cringed inwardly at what she had just done. "Didn't you even get a hint of how to fly?"
He shrugged. "Not really. I think I was too freaked out to think about anything but the ground. I guess we can try it again, but if anyone sees us, they're going to think we're crazy — or that you're trying to murder me."
"Forget what anyone else thinks. Nobody knows who you are around here, anyway. Are you willing to try it again?"
"Sure. It's sort of like that first step off a high diving board. It's easier the second time." He reached for the fire escape and put a foot on the second rung, beginning to climb. "Let's go." He paused several feet up and glanced down at her upturned face. "You're really incredible, did you know that? But, you know, in the rush of the moment, there was one thing I forgot to ask Mrs. Kent."
Lois gulped. Charlie was taking this pretty well, considering the fact that she'd just pushed him off a three-story building. "What was it?"
"If I was married."
Still feeling half-guilty about what she had done, Lois gave him an exasperated grimace. "Will you stop worrying about it? We'll find out later when the danger is over and the phone lines clear up! For the record, I hope you're not married, too, okay? But, first things first."
His expression changed. "Do you mean that?"
"Well, sure I do! It'd be just my luck to find the guy I've been looking for all my life and then find out he already had a wife! But if we don't figure out how to do this, we're not going to have a chance to —"
Charlie dropped from the fire escape and landed lightly beside her. "I'm glad — because I don't see how I could possibly feel like this about any woman who wasn't you."
"Charlie —" Appalled, she felt the tough exterior that protected her against other people cracking open and the scene before her blurred with tears. "I just pushed you off a building!"
"I know." He rested a hand on her cheek. "So what? You did what you thought needed to be done. I just wish I had your courage."
"My *courage*! Charlie, I'm reckless and headstrong, and I do stupid things, and I can't make lasting friendships with people…"
"You made one with me."
"I know. This time might have been different. Maybe it wouldn't have turned into a disaster. But now —"
How it happened, she didn't know, but suddenly his arms were around her and she was burying her face against his shoulder. Somehow, here she could almost ignore the fate that was bearing down on them, bringing destruction to everything the human race had achieved during its relatively short run on the planet. What they could have had would never be, now. The world as they knew it was about to change in a way that no one could imagine.
It wasn't something she consciously decided to do, but she found herself lifting her head from his shoulder and almost without her own volition, placed a palm on either side of his face and kissed him.
The kiss lasted for what seemed like forever and yet, oddly, it was over too quickly. His body tensed suddenly; the arms that held her tightened for an instant and she felt him lift his head. She opened her eyes to see him looking intently at her with an expression in his dark eyes that seemed composed of both astonishment and discovery.
"Charlie…" she began.
He shook his head and placed a finger across her lips. "No," he said. "It's not over yet, Lois." Quickly he leaned down and kissed her again. "Go home," he told her. "Go back to the Planet. I'll be back; I promise. Just remember what I said — and what you said." He stepped away from her and she watched, half-puzzled.
Charlie lifted from the ground and hovered. She felt her jaw drop and saw him smile. "I'm not married," he said, holding her eyes for another long instant. "And you were absolutely right." Then he began to rise, at first slowly and then faster and faster, arrowing upward until he had dwindled to a tiny speck that disappeared against the cloudy sky. Lois stared after him, paralyzed, for a slow count of ten. Then she turned and raced for the Jeep.
The LNN countdown was continuing when she turned on the radio and maneuvered the Jeep out onto Main Street, heading back toward the Interstate. Overhead, the sky was almost a uniform slate grey and she could see the branches of the trees that lined the thoroughfare tossing in the growing breeze.
How long would it take Charlie to reach the Nightfall swarm? Grimly, she concentrated on paying attention to the traffic as she left Willow Rock and turned back toward Metropolis, all the while listening to the countdown issuing from the radio. It seemed like forever, but in reality barely five minutes had gone by and she was just passing the city limits sign when there was a change in the monotonous countdown. The announcer's voice faltered. She heard a flurry of unidentified sounds in the background and a muffled: "What? Are you serious?"
More muffled words that she couldn't quite make out and then the announcer's voice, shaking and flustered, returned.
"Ladies and gentlemen, EPRAD Ground Control is reporting — ah, hell!" the voice said, suddenly. "We have the tape. Let's just play it! Nobody's gonna believe it, otherwise!"
Static filled the cabin for a moment, then another voice, crackly with bursts of interference, came over the speaker.
"This is EPRAD Ground Control. We are now two hours and thirty-six minutes from the impact of the Nightfall Asteroid. Asteroid is on course. We're projecting an impact zone approximately two hundred miles northwest of Australia…" Static. "Wait a minute…Mission Trackers are reporting an anomaly. Switching to backup computers for confirmation. Roger…confirmation. This is incredible! The asteroid velocity is decreasing…repeat, decreasing! The asteroid appears to be changing course!" It was apparent that the man at EPRAD Ground Control was hovering on the edge of hysteria. "I don't believe it!" the voice was babbling. "It's going to miss us by at least 50,000 miles! Several of the other, larger pieces appear to be changing direction as well…"
The tape cut off and the LNN announcer was back, sounding only marginally less hysterical than the voice from EPRAD Control. "So far we've had no explanation for this apparent miracle, ladies and gentlemen, but it's official! Nightfall has changed direction at nearly the last minute! It's gonna miss us by the skin of our teeth, astronomically speaking, but it's going to miss!"
Lois pulled slowly to the side of the road and leaned forward to rest her forehead on the steering wheel, paying no attention to the cheers and whoops issuing most unprofessionally from the radio.
"You did it," she whispered. "After all that, you did it. Thank you, Charlie."
It was past sunset by the time Lois drove slowly back into Metropolis. The last, faint traces of pink still lit the western sky and the city was dark except for the lights in the hands of hundreds of men and women now occupying the streets and sidewalks.
It was amazing, she thought, looking around at a city that had sprung magically to life with the news of Earth's reprieve. They were going to have a monumental mess to clean up tomorrow, that was for sure, but at the moment, nobody cared. The power hadn't come back on yet but people were literally dancing in the streets.
She made her way through celebrating mobs toward the Daily Planet, aware of fatigue and a deep sense of satisfaction that was born of a job well done. There would be a tomorrow for Earth after all — and all of it was due to Charlie. She wasn't sure what she was going to tell the others about him, except that they had managed to find his family and that she had taken him home. She was certain that he wouldn't want anyone to know what he had done, but it seemed to be a shame that he couldn't be given the credit he deserved. She would respect his wishes, however. She, above all, could understand his desire not to be different from the people around him.
He would be back; he had promised her that and she believed him. Unless — the tiny doubt hit her again — unless something had happened to him in space. She didn't think it had. She had been listening to the radio on the way back to Metropolis. The deadline had passed a few moments ago and so far all that the astronomers had reported was an increase in the number of shooting stars lighting up the sky. One or two small strikes had been reported over the South Pacific, but there had been no real damage. Various scientists, contacted by LNN for an explanation of the apparent miracle, had rambled on about gravitational influences and so forth but the consensus seemed to be that no one really knew what had caused it. So Charlie had succeeded. The question was, had he come back?
Of course he had, she told herself again. If he had managed to survive the first attempt, albeit, just barely, he would certainly have survived this one as well but the little nagging worry remained. Undoubtedly, there were things he would have to do; he'd been missing from Smallville for an extended period of time but surely, he would let her know that he had survived.
She pulled the Cherokee into the basement lot of the Planet and stepped out, stretching her stiff legs. It had been a long trip, and the elevators still weren't working, she recalled. Hopefully, now that the threat of destruction from space had passed, the various crews working on the problem would get the power back on soon before the entire East Coast froze to death.
The Daily Planet newsroom was in a state of controlled chaos when she stepped out of the stairwell. Several members of the staff, whom Lois had not seen since the first day of the Nightfall crisis, had shown up and Perry was barking orders right and left. Her boss spotted her as she came in and a smile lit his face.
"Lois! How did things go?"
"Pretty well," she said. "Charlie's memory is back — mostly, anyway. Any more word on what happened?"
Perry shook his head. "Not yet. Some wacko out in California is trying to say that the only thing that could have made the asteroid change direction like that was an unseen gravitational source that pulled it off course and could destroy the Earth anyway. Somebody else pointed out that the other asteroids changed course in different directions, so that seems to scuttle that theory. EPRAD can't figure it out and is promising further study. Spokesmen for various world religions are suggesting it was divine intervention…"
"In short, nobody has a clue," Lois said, thinking back to her own wild theory of a few days ago. It hadn't been much wilder than the real one, though, so she could hardly laugh.
"That's about it," Perry agreed. "How are you feeling, honey?"
"Tired," Lois said. "Relieved."
"Yeah, me too," Perry admitted. "You stayed when nearly everybody else gave up, and helped a guy get his memory back. I want a piece about that for the paper when we get back up and running."
"Sure," she said, wondering privately what she was going to say about it — "The guy regained his memory and flew up to save the world from Nightfall"? Well, she'd think of something suitably innocuous without exactly lying. She had her journalistic integrity to think about, after all. "Any estimate on when the power will be back?"
Perry shrugged. "They keep sayin' any time, but so far, no lights."
As he spoke, the lights flickered faintly and then came on. In the background, the subtle hum of power resumed.
"We're back!" Jimmy's voice said.
Lois looked around at the familiar newsroom. They were back, as Jimmy had said. The world had survived and everything could go back to normal. Except for her. She had a strong hunch that for her, life would never be quite the same again.
It was nearly eight o'clock when she let herself back into her little apartment. Everything looked as it had when she and Charlie had left it this morning. His blankets were folded neatly on the sofa and her fish were swimming around in their tank as if nothing had happened. For them, life was back to normal, as well.
Lois kicked her door shut, dropped her bag on the floor and turned to fasten the numerous locks that adorned her door. Tonight, she was going to have to have the sandwiches she had picked up at the gas station for dinner and tomorrow, she would have to go shopping. And maybe by then, she would hear from Charlie…
The apartment, she noticed suddenly, wasn't chilly the way it had been when they left. In fact, it had been heated to a comfortable temperature. And from the kitchen, a delicious aroma was wafting. Her mouth began to water. It smelled like…
There was a box sitting on her kitchen table, filled with little bamboo containers and one glance inside told her that her guess had been correct. It was take-out Chinese, superbly prepared and still quite warm. Beside the box was a folded piece of paper with her name written neatly in the upper corner. Lois snatched it up.
Dear Lois, (she read)
I wanted to let you know as soon as I could that everything went fine and to thank you for all the things that you did for me, even for shoving me off that building.
I didn't want to be seen around the Daily Planet again for reasons that you will understand in a few days. I hoped you would be here when I came by, but since you weren't, this should tide you over until the stores open tomorrow. I brought it from my favorite takeout place in Shanghai.
You were right all along, you know. I couldn't stand to lose the important things in my life, and you were the most important. I realized that when you kissed me, and I guess in the end, that was what made me remember; I know that was when it happened, and it makes sense, at least to me. I remember everything, now, and I'll explain it all, or at least as much as I know, when I see you again.
I'll be busy for the next couple of days, tying up some loose ends, but I'll be seeing you very soon. I meant what I said back in Willow Rock. I hope you did, too.
P.S. And I'm not married.
He had underlined the word "not" three times. Lois gave a soft laugh and sat down to eat her dinner. She'd been right. Life was unlikely to ever be quite the same for her. She was looking forward to it.
It was amazing how quickly things had gone back to normal, Lois thought, walking into work two days later. There were still a few broken windows along the street and debris scattered around but the repair and cleanup crews were busy and people were once more going to work and living their lives as if nothing had ever interrupted them.
She had had no further direct word from Charlie, but now that she knew what to look for, she had seen traces of him in reports that came in from all over the world. Damage from the four days while the world waited for destruction mysteriously repaired itself overnight; the lava flow from Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippine Islands that had been threatening a village inexplicably changed course without warning. To her, those and a hundred other incidents as well all said "Charlie". He hadn't been kidding when he said he had a few loose ends to tie up, she thought.
But she was sure, as well, that he intended to keep his promise to her. The only question was, when.
Perry was in his office, she saw when she stepped off the elevator, and she could see someone sitting in one of the other chairs, facing him. Perry was speaking, then, as she watched, the other man rose to his feet. Perry thrust out a hand and the other man took it, nodding.
A job interview, Lois thought. Perry had been looking for someone to help cover the city beat for a couple of weeks but so far he hadn't found the right person. She wondered if this guy had been given a polite brush off the way he'd given it to the five other persons who had previously interviewed for the position.
She continued on to her desk, dropped her purse beside it and reached out to boot her computer up for the day's work. She looked up, mildly curious, when the door to the editor's office opened and the two men emerged. The stranger was tall and dark-haired, wearing a pair of horn- rimmed glasses. Lois noted with approval the broad shoulders that filled out the sports jacket and grimaced mentally at the brilliant tie.
Perry glanced around. "Jimmy!"
The office gofer bounced across the room in answer to the boss's summons and Lois pricked up her ears. It looked as if this guy had been lucky and Perry's next words confirmed it.
"Jimmy, this is Clark Kent. He's the new guy on the city beat. Take him down to Personnel so he can get started on the paperwork."
Kent? The name made her sit bolt upright. She looked quickly at the new hire, really seeing him for the first time and saw that Clark Kent was looking straight across the office at her, smiling.
He really did look different, she thought, and the image of the melted glasses she had found in the crater popped into her mind. He hadn't been kidding when he said that he'd be seeing her in a couple of days. No wonder he'd told her he hadn't wanted to be seen at the Planet without the heavy growth of beard. Someone might have recognized Charlie when he applied for work there.
She found herself smiling back at him, and watched him as he followed Jimmy across the newsroom toward the elevator.
Clark Kent, huh? No wonder the editor of the Smallville Press hadn't been at the office when they called.
Well, he'd said he would explain as much as he knew. She would hold him to that, she thought. She had a lot of questions to ask him. It looked as if life at the Daily Planet was about to become very, very interesting.
The phone rang as the elevator doors closed behind the two men and she reached out to pick up the receiver.
"Hello, Ms. Lane." The voice at the other end of the line was cheerful and masculine. "My name is Dr. Vincent Winninger…"