By Terry Leatherwood <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Rated: PG13 (for intense descriptions of pain)
Submitted: January 2005
Summary: Lois is in mortal danger. Superman can't save her, so Clark is flying to the rescue. But will he arrive in time?
*You will know fear.
You will know pain.
Then you will die.*
Warning: This is not, by any stretch of anyone's imagination, a humorous story. Read at your own risk.
Set early in season two, before Intergang makes its presence known, and shortly after TOGOM.
"Is she ready yet, Doc?"
"Almost. Just one more — connection — there. She's ready."
"Is the IV hooked up clean?"
"Yep. She's plugged in like a million-dollar stereo system."
"You sure no one's gonna bother us?"
"I told you, the basement is lead-lined and soundproofed. Nobody's going to find us any time soon unless we want to be found."
"Good. I guess we're ready to start. You on the log?"
"Got it. Lights in subject room are now off and the room is sealed. Recording — now. Subject is Lois Lane, Caucasian female, age twenty-six —"
"According to her driver's license, her birthday was last week."
"Whatever. Age twenty-seven, five feet five inches in height, weight one hundred two pounds. General health very good, no visible scars or birthmarks. This interrogation session will induce fear, first of pain and then of death, until the subject becomes susceptible to any suggestion and willing to answer any questions. First session begins at two forty-eight AM October ninth."
"So let's get going, Doc!"
"We are going. This will be just like the others."
"I sure hope so. I can't wait to get my hands on that money."
"Starting the IV now. Subject should exhibit response within ten seconds."
Lois awoke to unfocused, intense pain. She gasped and cried out. It wasn't a particular part of her body that hurt, it was her whole body that hurt, and the pain seemed to radiate from the inside out. She couldn't see anything except a dark mist, almost like a spider's web but without substance.
She tried to lift her head, but a strap across her forehead limited her movement. All she could see was what looked like an orange shirt. She knew it wasn't hers. Orange clashed with her eyes. Looking at the garish shade seemed to hurt her even more.
She couldn't remember how she'd gotten here, wherever 'here' was. She forced herself to think back to the last thing she remembered, her phone conversation with Clark and how much fun she'd had teasing him. She remembered the lunch 'date' they'd made, and that she'd made him promise to go Dutch. She remembered hanging up and turning to get a glass of water from the kitchen, then someone had knocked on her door.
She'd asked who was there.
Floral delivery, a voice had said.
She'd peered through the peephole and had seen a man holding a huge floral arrangement. She'd smiled knowingly. Clark, she'd thought, you're a real tiger after all.
She'd opened the door to smell the flowers and something in the air had stung the inside of her nose and -
And she remembered nothing from that moment forward until she'd awakened here. Someone had kidnapped her from her apartment.
And she was in terrible, uncompromising pain. The pain was intense, insistent, persistent, and unyielding. It was worse than any beating that she'd ever experienced. She hurt so much she could barely think. The darkness around her seemed to move and twist as if it had a life of its own.
She called out in fear.
"Help! Someone help me! Please! It hurts! Ahh! It hurts!"
"I'm here, Lois. I'm here."
She tried to sit up but something held her down. "Superman! Oh, thank you! Please get me out of here! It hurts!"
"I can't help you. I'm sorry."
"What? What do you mean you can't help me? This hurts! Ahh! It really hurts!"
He stood beside the pallet where she lay and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Lois. If I help you now, there are a number of other people who will die. I'm caught on the horns of a dilemma."
The pain intensified and she cried out again. "Ahh! Agghh! Then — go help them! Save them so you can come back and — aaahh! — save me!"
"I can't do that, Lois. I have to stay here with you."
The pain suddenly escalated and Lois arched her back against her restraints. She screamed and passed out.
"Continuing. Subject was partly conscious for four minutes twenty seconds. Subject was introduced to thirty- five percent pain maximum and withstood a sudden increase to forty-five percent maximum tolerance levels before losing consciousness. Anticipate next session within fifty minutes."
Clark's eyes snapped open in the early morning darkness. He leaped up and whirled into the Superman suit before he was fully alert. He wasn't sure what had awakened him, so he did a quick scan of the area with both vision and hearing. Finding nothing, he tuned in to both police and fire emergency frequencies, but found no emergencies that required his attention. He opened his window and flashed out to perform a quick patrol, but again he came up empty- handed. It was a quiet night for Metropolis.
He paused and hovered over the city, frowning. Something had awakened him, but he had no idea what it might have been. Lois wasn't in trouble, else he'd have heard her call for help.
Then he smiled. Of course! The memory of Lois from yesterday! It must have incited a nice dream. Yes, he thought, it must have been a very nice dream.
The afternoon before had been very nice, too. Lois had smiled a very private smile to him as they'd left work yesterday. She'd even kissed him, a soft and gentle and lingering kiss, just before the elevator had stopped at the lobby. Lois had stepped out and glanced back over her shoulder at him and winked. That wink had knocked the breath from his lungs and slapped a silly smile on his face. He'd been so enthralled that he'd forgotten to get out before the doors closed again.
He'd ridden the car up to the executive floor and ridden down again in amazed silence. The memory of Lois's lips against his was intoxicating and he'd hurried home, waiting impatiently for her phone call.
She'd called just before nine and teased him mercilessly, then promised to have lunch with him the next day. Clark didn't think he'd sleep at all that night, but he'd dropped off like a child and dreamed very pleasant dreams.
The dreams of Lois must have awakened him. He almost decided to fly over her apartment and look in on her, but he restrained himself. Watching her sleep would, for him, be a most exquisite torture.
"Beginning next session at four-eighteen AM. Stimulant levels increased by five percent. Subject is moving against her restraints. Responding now."
Lois awoke to waves of pain pounding against her entire body like a storm surge. She arched her back and gasped. It hurt too much to breathe for a moment, then she forced herself to relax as much as possible.
It helped ever so slightly. She looked around to see the same dark mist surrounding her. She called out frantically.
"Help! Help, Superman! Help me!"
Abruptly, Superman was standing beside her. "I'm here, Lois."
"Get me out of here now! It hurts!"
He crossed his arms. "I told you before, I can't. You'll have to stay here for a while."
A tear tracked down the side of her face. She tried to wipe it away, but her arms were bound. "Please help me, Superman! Please! You have to help me!"
"I'm sorry, Lois. Helping you would doom others. I have no choice."
"Please! Ahhh! Please help me! I'm begging you!"
He shook his head. "I can't help you this time, Lois."
She crushed her eyes shut and turned away. Why wouldn't he help her? What was wrong?
A thought pushed through the pain. "Kryptonite! Is that it? There's — ahhh! There's Kryptonite around? That's why you — yaahh!"
"No, Lois. No Kryptonite. There's nothing here that can harm me."
"But it hurts! Agghh! Ahh! Somebody's — hurting me! Help me! Please!"
"I'm sorry, Lois. I can't."
"Help! Help me! Yeeaagghhh!"
The pain increased. She tipped over the edge of reality and fell into oblivion.
"Subject capable of logical thought even at fifty percent of lethal pain levels. Will increase stimulant levels to fifty-five percent at next session."
"She's tough, Doc. This might be harder than you thought it would be."
"I'll break her. Nobody's that tough."
"You say that now, but —"
"That's enough! She'll talk."
"You know how this works, MacGillis. The first step is to break down the subject's resistance and take away the emotional support. While we do that, we induce pain and confuse the subject and prepare the subject to answer questions. Then we ask innocuous questions to remove the subject's reluctance to respond. Then we ask the real questions and use both pain and emotional manipulation to induce the subject to tell us anything we want to know."
"We want to know her favorite foods?"
"We want her to answer questions! It doesn't matter what they are, not at first, as long as she — as long as the subject responds."
"Uh-huh. You might have bitten off more than you can chew this time, Doc."
Clark sat up in bed before his alarm rang. He smiled at the prospect of seeing Lois again so soon. He threw back the covers and started breakfast, humming tunelessly to himself.
He giggled, then felt silly, then giggled again. All his powers, all his abilities, all his Kryptonian advantages, and he couldn't sing a note or play anything more complicated than a CD player. He was glad Lois could sing. Maybe they could go out tonight, something unplanned and spontaneous, and maybe he could coax her into singing at the local karaoke bar. He'd heard her sing once or twice before and had been favorably impressed. Yeah, an impromptu 'real' date was a great idea. Spontaneous Clark, that was him.
He picked out his most hideous tie and knotted it with a flourish. Funny, he thought, how a simple thing like a crummy tie drew so much attention from his face. He locked his apartment door behind him and skipped down the steps to find a cab.
"Subject is nearly awake. Beginning next session at five-fifty-three AM. Will introduce second persona in this session."
"Are you sure she's ready for that? Maybe you should hold off for one more session."
"Who's in charge of this, you or me?"
"I thought we were working together."
"We are working together, MacGillis! But I'm in charge! These are my theories and my techniques! We'll do this my way!"
"Okay, man. You're the doctor."
"That's right and don't you forget it!"
"Sure. Doctor Proctor. Your folks didn't do you any favors with that name."
"Shut up! You're supposed to be on the microphone! Do the talking and leave the thinking to me!"
"Yes, sir! Right away, sir!"
Lois awoke to severe pain. There was no injury she could feel, no marks or bruises or broken bones she could detect. The pain seemed to emanate from every cubic centimeter of her being. There was no place in her body where she could focus to relieve the awareness of the pain.
That wasn't natural. Somebody was deliberately doing this to her. But why? What did they want? Why didn't they ask her for something?
She tried to look at her arms, but the strap around her forehead still kept her head down. She tried to roll over, but the belly strap kept her from moving very far.
Was this a hospital bed? Was there a call button she could press? She reached out and up as far as she could with both hands, but she encountered nothing like what she was searching for.
The pain overwhelmed her mind and she screamed, then screamed again. Superman appeared beside her.
"Lois? Lois, can you hear me?"
"Aaahhhh! Yes, Superman, yes! Help me! Get me out of here!"
"I can't, Lois. I can't help you."
She screamed again and thrashed from side to side. "Why? Yaahhh! Why can't you help me?"
"I told you, Lois. If I save you, many others will die."
"No! Get me out of here! Yaaahhh! It hurts! Agghh!"
Perry appeared on the other side of the bed. "Listen to Superman, Lois. He knows what he's talking about."
Her eyes snapped towards him. "Perry! Ahgghh! What are you doing here?"
"I'm here to talk to you, Lois. You should listen to Superman."
"Get me out of this! It hurts! It — yaaaaahhhhh!"
"I can't, Lois. If Superman can't help you, what do you think I can do?"
"Help me! Somebody help me! Help — ahhhhh!"
She screamed her lungs out and slipped back into unconsciousness.
"Subject is still resisting. She still displays coherent alpha patterns, even under extreme duress. She is apparently attempting to deduce the reason for her circumstances and form a plan of action. The next session will begin at sixty-five percent lethal levels and increase to seventy percent as the session progresses."
"You think that's wise, Doc?"
"We've got to push her past the ability to reason and get her to the point of only wanting to stop the pain. She's resisting more effectively than most."
"Maybe that's a good thing."
"Oh? How could that be a good thing?"
"The longer she holds out, the more complete the break. That's what you told —"
"I know what I said! You just get ready for the next treatment!"
Clark skipped down the steps to the news floor, but he was intercepted short of his desk by the managing editor of the paper.
"Kent! Glad you're here early. Where's Lois?"
Clark's eyebrows lifted. "I don't know, Chief."
"When did you talk to her last?"
"About nine last night. Why?"
Perry frowned. "I called her a little after eleven to ask her to come in early but she didn't answer. I was hoping you'd know where she was. She needs to jump on this story about a possible leak in the DA's office. Someone's been giving out plea bargain information at the wrong times to the wrong people."
"I'm sure she'll be here soon, Chief. You want me to take that?"
Perry hesitated, then nodded. "Here's the contact info. We don't have much else yet. If Lois gets here before you get too far into this, you give it back to her. Otherwise, you let me take the heat for reassigning the story."
Clark grinned. "You better believe I will!" He turned to his desk and began to read the notes Perry had given him.
The question of where Lois had been last night at eleven nibbled at his mind, but he told himself she'd let him know as soon as she walked in. She'd probably have a great story already written and ready for publication. He picked up the phone and began dialing.
"Next session ready to begin at seven-forty-one AM, October ninth. Subject will receive stimulus beginning at sixty-five percent and will increase steadily to seventy percent. Ready, MacGillis?"
"Ready if you are."
Lois awoke to electric pain everywhere. She'd never felt such agony. She'd never known such gripping pain. She almost wished someone would beat her with a club just to give her a different type of pain.
Superman was standing at her feet. From her position, all she could see was the outline of his head and shoulders. Her voice squeaked.
"Help — me. Please — help. Help! Aaaaggghhh!"
The shout escaped as the pain somehow escalated. She emptied her lungs with the effort, then panted hard while groaning. She felt as if white-hot needles were being thrust into and through every point on her skin. She felt as if knives made of the coldest glacial ice were scraping her bones away from the inside out.
And Superman made no move to help, said nothing, did nothing. She cried out again.
"Help! Help me! Please! I beg you — aaagghhh! — p- please help me! Yaaahhh! Aaaggghhh! No more! Please! No more! Yaahhhh!"
He leaned over her feet. "I can't help you, Lois. I can't make it stop. You're going to have to do what they want."
"Ahhhh! What do they want? Yaahhh! Noooo! Tell me! Aaaaggghhh! Tell me what to do — eeeyyyaaahhh!"
She toppled over into blackness again.
"Subject is nearly ready. Alpha patterns are becoming increasingly disorganized. Next session will introduce another familiar entity. Stimulus levels will begin at fifty-five percent and increase in five percent increments to seventy-five percent."
"She's gonna tear herself apart, Proctor."
"No she won't. Not yet, at any rate. She will make a conscious decision to answer our questions truthfully and fully."
"And after we get our answers we kill her?"
"Of course. She won't be much good to anybody by then anyway."
Clark glanced at the clock. Almost nine-thirty, and no Lois yet. He saved his notes in a file and sent them to Perry, along with a preliminary draft. He had the beginnings of a solid story, but he needed more facts and more information. He needed Lois's contacts. She'd give him more numbers to call.
Just as he closed the e-mail message, Perry popped out of his office and glared at Lois's empty desk. Almost any other reporter would have been looking for another job, but Clark knew that Perry's glare revealed worry for her and not anger at her.
Something was seriously wrong.
Perry called out, "Has anyone heard from Lois Lane today?"
Jimmy prairie-dogged up out of his mini-cubicle. "Ah, Chief, there's a message on her desk."
"You take it?"
"No. I saw it there earlier."
Perry picked up the message blank and frowned more deeply. Clark walked over and asked, "What's the matter, Chief?"
Perry slapped the paper against his other hand. "This is a message for Lois to meet some source at eight-fifteen under the statue in the park. But she would have had to be here before seven to pick it up, and I've been here since before six. She never got this."
Clark's frown matched Perry's. "Chief, you're sure she didn't slip in and out without you seeing her?"
"Positive. My door was open and I was listening for her. I had this assignment for her, remember?"
"Right, right. Maybe —"
Perry turned towards Jimmy's shout. "Not now!"
Clark and Perry both turned towards him. "What is it, Olsen?"
"Inspector Henderson's on the phone, line three!"
"Tell him I'll call him back."
"No! You have to talk to him now!" Both Perry and Clark stared in amazement; Jimmy had never spoken to Perry so forcefully before.
Clark held his hand up in front of Perry. "Hold on, Perry. Jimmy, what's so important about this call?"
Jimmy stared bleakly at them. "The inspector wants to tell Lois that they found her Jeep."
Clark and Perry stared at each other for half a second, then reached the same conclusion at the same instant. Perry never understood how Clark beat him to the phone. "Inspector, this is Clark Kent. Tell me all about this. Uh-huh. Really? Oh, boy. No, no message. No idea where she is or what she's doing. She hasn't been here at all today. Got it. I'll be right there."
He hung up the phone and turned to Perry. "Henderson says a woman claiming to be Lois Lane called in a car theft about two this morning. Whoever it was had all the right information. The officer who took the call doesn't remember anything special about the woman's voice or the call itself."
"So where's her Jeep?"
"Beside an abandoned warehouse near Hobb's Bay. I'm going out there to check it out."
Jimmy reached for his jacket. "Hey, CK, can I come?"
Clark shook his head as he scampered up the steps. "Sorry, Jimmy, not this time. You stay here and monitor the phones. Call Lois's cell phone and pager and try to get a radio trace on either one. And have the police check Lois's apartment for anything weird."
Clark considered flying to the site, but instead decided to take a cab. No sense waiting for Henderson, and no sense giving him food for thought by showing up impossibly soon.
"Next session ready to begin at ten-ten AM. Subject has exhibited fatigue and extended recovery time between sessions. We will begin at fifty-five percent stimulus and escalate in stages of five percent at random time intervals. Maximum stimulus level for this session will be — seventy- five percent. IV now flowing, begin — now."
"I'm gonna be a girl this time, huh? Can I be a blond? With long, flowing, honey-colored locks? And great legs? And really big —"
"MacGillis, if you give me any more static —"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, you're such a teddy bear."
Lois awoke to pain again, but at a lower level this time. Not that it was much of a relief. She still felt like she'd been dragged through a knothole backwards a dozen or more times.
She heard a woman's voice calling her name. "Lois? Can you hear me, Lois?"
"What? What do you want?"
"Lois, it's me, Lucy."
"Lucy! Oh, no! Did they get you, too? Just hang on, we'll figure out —"
"No, Lois. I'm here to tell you that you have to cooperate."
The pain jacked up a notch and she jerked. "Ahhh! What do you mean? Cooperate with — with who?"
"The people who are asking the questions, of course."
"Nobody's — gaaahhh — asked me a blasted thing! Yaahhh! Are they hurting you? Are you hurt?"
"No, Lois, I'm fine. You're the only one who's hurting. You're the only one who's in trouble."
"What? Then — aaagghh! Then get me out! Get me out of here! Help me! Aaahhhhh! Help me, Lucy! P-please!"
"I can't do that, Lois. Even Superman can't help you now. You have to answer the questions."
The pain escalated once again. "Aaahhhhh! No! Stop! What questions? Lucy, help me! Help! Help me! Help me help me help me help me help me help meeaaagghhh!"
She couldn't believe it. The pain intensified yet again. She screamed. "Help! Superman! Help!"
He appeared beside her bed once again, opposite Lucy. "I'm here, Lois."
"Help me!" She started crying freely. "Why won't you help me?"
His voice was level and calm, almost emotionless. "I keep telling you, Lois, I can't help you. It would cause the deaths of many others. You have to stay here."
She wrenched her body upwards as the pain accelerated once more. Her mouth fell open in a soundless scream and she clenched her fists. A crazy thought entered her head, that if she held her breath long enough she'd pass out and stop hurting.
She gasped and struggled against her bindings. The pain went up another level and she screamed endlessly. She tried to wrench her hands free, not to release her other bindings but to strangle Superman.
Her eyes bulged with the effort and her joints crackled. She tried to kick free, but the pain enveloped her and she blacked out.
"Proctor! How much of that juice did you give her?"
"I stopped at seventy-five percent, MacGillis, just like I said I would."
"I saw the monitors! Her heartbeat was over one-fifty and her blood pressure was through the roof! We're supposed to get answers from her, not torture her for pleasure!"
"We will get the answers! And along with the answers, I'll get more data for my research!"
"You're killing her!"
"She's going to die when we're through anyway! What difference does it make how she dies?"
"It makes a difference to me! I won't let you torture her for the fun of it!"
"Fine! You can monitor the medical equipment and I'll do the talking!"
"I'm not a doctor and you can't act worth a flip! I know she's as good as dead, I just don't want you enjoying it!"
"Very well. Take a break. We'll pick it up in a couple of hours."
Henderson was waiting when Clark jumped out of the cab. "Hold it right here, Clark. The forensic team is still working on it."
Clark fidgeted in place for two full minutes. He spent the entire time staring at Lois's Jeep, as if it had the answers to his questions.
A short, slender, dark-skinned woman with shoulder- length dreadlocks detached herself from the clump of people around the vehicle and walked across the parking lot to the two men. In a broad, lilting tone, she said, "William? We done, mon. I wish my car be so clean as that one."
"Clark, this is Lieutenant Marcia Gomez, forensics." He leaned towards Clark and pretended to whisper, "Watch out for her. She's from Jamaica."
She cocked an eyebrow at Henderson, then reached out to grasp Clark's hand firmly. "A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Kent." She leaned closer. "Don't mind the inspector. He is from Metropolis, so he cannot help it."
Clark grinned conspiratorially. "I'll keep that in mind."
Henderson cleared his throat. "You can flirt with him on your own time, Marcia. What did you find in the Jeep?"
"Not a solitary thing, William."
Henderson cocked his head to one side. "You mean you didn't find anything out of the ordinary, right?"
Gomez shook her head. Her locks rattled from side to side. "No, mon, I mean I find nothing. That Jeep be cleaner now than when they build it."
"You mean somebody sanitized it?"
"If you mean did somebody wipe the spic from the span, then, yes."
"So we have nothing to go on?"
"We have less than nothing. Not even Lois Lane's prints be in that car. They even wash the asphalt around it. No footprints. Only thing we find is residue from cheap dishwashing soap on the bottom of one tire, the kind anybody buys in almost any grocery store. No way to trace it." She frowned and crossed her arms. "Somebody want her to disappear for sure, mon."
Clark seemed to deflate. "Lieutenant, you mean you have no clues at all?"
"No, Mr. Kent, not from her car. We must approach this case from some different direction."
Henderson turned to Clark. "I'm sorry for dragging you all the way out here for nothing, Clark. I'll arrange a ride back to the Planet for you."
He held up his hand. "Mind if I take a look around first?"
Henderson shrugged. "Marcia is the best we have at this, Clark. If she can't find anything, I doubt you will, but go ahead if it'll make you feel better. In fact, I'll even release the Jeep to you if you want."
"Not just yet. Let me poke around a bit first."
They watched Clark step carefully towards the Jeep, scanning the parking lot around it as he went. Henderson turned to Gomez and asked quietly, "What do you think he's looking for?"
Gomez sighed and shook her head. "He look for his heart, William. Whoever that woman is, she carry it with her. He got to find her and his heart both." She punched his elbow gently. "I take my team back to the lab. We don't do no good here. But call me when you find something interesting, right?"
"You've got dibs on the next dead body, Marcia, I promise."
She grinned up at him. "Oh, you surely know the way to a woman's heart."
Clark ignored their byplay. He checked the parking lot around the Jeep carefully. Sure enough, there were no footprints older than the soap residue on the asphalt. He opened the driver's door and looked at the carpet. It held nothing.
He went around to the passenger side and looked again. Bingo. The impression of a man's dress shoe appeared in the carpet, far too faint for the police to have spotted it. Only someone with Superman's enhanced vision could have found the shoe print. The man had apparently stepped down onto the parking lot and then back up again. There were microscopic traces of asphalt and dust and soap in the carpet fibers.
He memorized the outline of the shoe, then began methodically searching for a match on the asphalt outside the clean area. If they had taken the trouble to move Lois directly to another vehicle and then sanitized the area, he was out of luck, so finding this man's footprints was his only lead.
There was nothing on the asphalt, so he expanded his search to the grassy field beside the parking lot. Clark hoped the rain two nights before had been enough to soak the ground and leave it damp enough to retain a shoe print.
Bingo again. He spotted a print in the dirt beside the edge of the asphalt that matched the print in the Jeep. Just then, Henderson walked over to him. "Clark, I have to leave. You want to come with me?"
Clark shook his head. "No. I want to look around some more."
Henderson waved his hands helplessly. "But there's nothing here for you to find. Come on back with me. We're not giving up, I promise."
"No thanks, Bill. I'll stay here for a while longer." He managed a wan smile. "Maybe something will come to me."
Henderson nodded. "Okay. I'll call Perry for you and tell him you're following a hunch." He put his hand on Clark's shoulder. "We'll find her, Clark. We'll find her."
Henderson turned and left. Clark looked more closely at the dirt near the first footprint. Now he could see Lois's prints beside the man's. His tracks were even, while hers scraped and skittered from side to side, as if he'd dragged her upright alongside him. A third set of tracks, probably another man's, paced the other two sets. The two men had either led, carried, or forced Lois with them across the field.
The tracks stopped suddenly in an open area behind the warehouses. Search as he might, Clark found no other tracks, either pedestrian or vehicular. There were no trees or buildings close by, only the imprints in the ground of what looked like two parallel pipes, each about twelve feet long.
He'd seen this arrangement of lines before, but it took him several moments of thinking before he realized what he was looking at. A small helicopter had landed here. The men had forced Lois into the chopper and they'd flown away.
He had no way to track the craft through the air, so he focused on memorizing the irregularities and minor dents on the copter's runners. If he could find the helicopter that made these marks, he'd be one giant step closer to Lois. Of course, given the number of helicopters in Metropolis, that was a pretty huge 'if.' Still, he had no other clues.
He looked around carefully and saw no one. He ran behind one of the small outbuildings and spun into the suit.
"Next session. Start time is twelve-thirty-one PM, October ninth. This time we will begin at seventy-five percent and remain steady throughout. We will also introduce a few innocuous questions to gauge the subject's readiness for interrogation. Ready, MacGillis?"
"MacGillis! What are you doing?"
"Eating. What does it look like?"
"You're not supposed to bring food or drink in here, you moron!"
"Watch it, Proctor! I don't —"
"These instruments are sensitive! I don't want these readings contaminated by a corned beef sandwich and cheap beer!"
"You kiddin'? The boss paid for this stuff. It's gourmet deli and premium lager."
"I don't care how much it cost! Finish it and get ready!"
"Okay, okay! Sheesh, you're such a grump when you're working."
Lois awoke to searing agony. Her bones seemed to radiate stabbing heat. Her muscles twisted and lurched against each other, adding to the hurt. There was no position to which she could shift which would ease the pain. She grunted and gasped and cried and screamed.
It seemed an eternity before she sensed someone there. Her hope was battered and bruised, but still she called out. "Help me! Aaahhh! Help me! Please! Whoever's there — aagghhh! Help me!"
Superman stood beside her. "I still can't help you, Lois. You have to answer the questions they ask you."
"What questions!" she screamed. "Yaagghh! They won't ask me anything! How can I answer if they don't ask?" She broke down into screaming sobs.
"Would you answer the questions, Lois?"
"Aaagghh! Yes! Yes! Just make it stop! Make it stop hurting!"
Lois heard a new voice. "I have a question for you, Lois."
She panted hard and arched her back. "What? Ask me! Please ask me!"
"What is your favorite snack food, Lois?"
"Tell me what your favorite snack food is."
The question engaged her mind for a moment, and she was able to push the pain aside long enough to realize that this new voice was mechanically disguised.
Then the voice asked again, "What is your favorite snack food, Lois?"
"Why? Aaaggghh! You have some double-crunch fudge bars for me?" The pain overwhelmed her reason once again and crushed her in its maw. "Yaaaggghh! Why are you hurting me? Why are you torturing me? Make it stop! P- please make it stop! Aggghhh!"
She dissolved into wet, spluttering sobs and slid back into the blackness.
"Subject responded to one innocuous question before succumbing once again. In the next session, we will lower the stimulus to forty percent and increase by five percent for each question not answered directly. Subject's resistance has decreased along with her stamina."
"You're gonna kill her, man."
"You just keep on talking, MacGillis! That's what you're best at."
"Yeah, right. I'm sure the boss really needs to know what her favorite restaurant is and what color underwear she buys."
"I told you, those questions are just primer questions! They get her accustomed to answering you, and then it's easier for her to answer the important ones later."
"Uh-huh. You're the doctor, Proctor."
"That's right! These are my theories, this is my experiment, these are my techniques! I know what I'm doing!"
"I know, I know, you'd be rich and famous if not for that one cop."
"She was in the wrong place at the wrong time! She got in the way!"
"Lots of people get 'in the way' when you're working, Proctor."
"You — Who's in charge here, MacGillis?"
"You are, Doc, you are."
"You'd best not forget it, either."
"Don't worry, I won't. I won't forget this third question on the 'real important' list, either."
"What are you talking about?"
"The one that asks what Lois Lane knows about you and your connection to the boss."
"To you, maybe. I'm not sure the boss would understand how urgent this one is."
"Just read it off the monitor, MacGillis, along with the rest of them! Are you hinting around about getting a bigger cut?"
"Naw, of course not. Now that you mention it, though, I wouldn't turn it down."
"You brainless little — Take a break! And get your priorities straight!"
"I'm my number one priority, Proctor, and you'd best not forget it, either."
Superman flew over the Metropolis International Airport, Siegel Field, and Pierce Regional Airport before he found a chopper that seemed to fit the landing skid pattern he'd memorized. It was parked on the west side of town, beyond the industrial district. He landed out of sight, spun back to his 'civvies,' and jogged to the small office beside the copter. The sign on the door read 'Right Now Deliveries.'
As he approached, a tall, muscular woman with short, dark hair, striking features, and wide shoulders stepped out and headed for the chrome-plated motorcycle parked on the far side of the office. She smiled and called out, "I am sorry, Se¤or, we are closed. Come back tomorrow morning, please."
Clark stopped beside her. "I'm not here to buy anything. I'm a reporter for the Daily Planet."
She smiled wider. "A reporter? Are you so interested in new citizens?"
"I am taking my citizenship examination this afternoon at one o'clock. I cannot be late, so I must leave now, else I would speak with you until your ears fell from your head."
"Wait! I just need to ask you if you flew a job last night."
She frowned. "SĄ, I did. How did you know of it?"
"I found the imprint of your landing struts in the ground."
She stared at him blankly. "You did what?"
"I measured the dimensions of the marks the struts made and called the local LexCorp Avionics office. They gave me three possible models and yours is one of them."
She put her hand on her hip and smiled. "I am impressed. You sought the pilot of a particular type of helicopter, and so you have found me. What do you want to —"
"What time was it?"
"What time was what?"
"When you lifted off from that field in the city!"
She straightened and stared at him. "Are you from the Federal Aviation Administration?"
"No! I told you I'm a reporter!"
"Then I need not tell you anything. Please excuse me —"
"No!" Clark grabbed her arm and held on firmly. "A woman's life may be at stake! Please, just a minute more."
She stared at him. "Release my arm, Se¤or."
He looked at his hand as if it had grabbed her arm of its own accord. He snatched it back. "Oh. I'm sorry, I don't — Please forgive me."
She frowned and rubbed her elbow. "This woman you speak of. You did not argue with her to make her run away? She is in real danger?"
"No, we didn't argue, and maybe she's in real danger, I don't know. All I'm sure of is that she's missing. Can you tell me about your flight last night? Please?"
"You will describe her to me."
"What? Oh, okay. Lois is Caucasian, very light- skinned, about this tall, slender, very dark hair down to her shoulders and parted in the middle, high cheekbones and exotic eyes —"
"That was the woman from last night." She nodded. "I will tell you what you want to know, but you perhaps will not like what you hear."
"I don't care about liking it, I just need to know what happened."
"As you wish. I flew to the vacant lot of which you spoke and landed just before dusk. I cannot land in such a place without lights. I waited until almost eleven o'clock, and then I saw a car drive into a nearby parking lot. Three people, two men and a woman, got out and carried the woman to my aircraft. She did not speak. I am not certain she was conscious. One other person stayed with the car. I do not know what that person did. I flew to a small field on the south-west side of the city, beyond the city limits. They had placed portable lights on the ground for me to see the landing zone." She frowned. "I did not like this job."
"Why did you take the job if it looked fishy?"
Her face blanked. "What is 'fishy'?"
"Uh, wrong somehow, weird, funky, strange, off-kilter —"
She held up her hand. "I grasp the concept. I accepted the job because they paid me a great deal of money, in cash, before the flight. They carried weapons, which I did not see before the flight, and they did not tell me they would force a woman to accompany them. They said she was ill and required medical attention. I did not believe them, but by the time I realized what was happening, I had no opportunity to refuse."
"Why didn't you call the police?"
"And tell them what? That I had just broken the law by flying from an unlighted, uncertified field in the middle of the city? That my customers might have done something wrong, but I do not know what that might be? I prefer to avoid dealing with the police if I am able to do so. And I do not wish to be deported."
"So why tell me what happened?"
She canted her head to one side. "Because you are not with the police, and I do not believe you will go out of your way to make trouble for me."
He nodded. "Do you think you could tell me where you took them?"
She lifted an eyebrow. "I thought you would not make trouble for me."
"I don't want to. I do, however, want to find Lois."
She frowned in thought. "I am certain that I can locate the field once again."
"How? You said you took off at night."
She pointed to the helicopter. "I have a global positioning monitor on my craft. I know where I landed almost to the meter."
"Great! If you could just give me the coordinates —"
"What! What do you mean 'no?' Lois may be in danger!"
"I mean that I will take you there. If this Lois is indeed in mortal danger, you cannot spare the time to locate another mode of transportation. You must depart immediately." She put her hand out. "My name is Carmen Avanzano. Your name is?"
He took her hand. "Clark Kent. Look, Ms. Avanzano, I appreciate your willingness to help, but I think —"
She turned to the copter. "Come, Mr. Kent, we are wasting time. We will spend nine minutes to add fuel to my helicopter and then we will go find your lady."
He raised his eyebrows. "Why do you refer to her as 'my' lady?"
"For a good friend, a man would risk much, but for the woman he loves, he will risk everything. You have the appearance of a man who would risk all."
"Yeah, maybe I do at that. Okay, what can I do to help?"
"You will address me as Carmen and I will call you Clark. It will save time."
He nodded. "Sounds good to me."
"Clark, you will now attach this hose to this nozzle on the helicopter. When the fuel is flowing, you may go into my office and call your employer. Tell him you are hiring a helicopter to take you to your Lois. Tell him you should be able to write a very good story about your adventure."
He lifted the hose to the side of the copter and snicked it into place. "Let me guess, you remembered I said I was a reporter."
She smiled. "I am an intelligent woman, Clark. You must learn to deal with it." She opened the valve and fuel began to flow. "And please tell your employer that this intelligent and very unreasonable woman who owns the helicopter and knows where to find this Lois person demands twice her usual fee for this flight."
He smiled back and nodded. "I think Perry will go for that."
She pointed to the office door. "Go. Call. Now."
"Next session begins now, at one-twenty-eight PM on October ninth. We will begin with forty percent stimulant level and increase in five percent increments for each refusal to answer. IV is flowing, subject is awake and responsive."
"Don't kill her yet, okay? Let me get some answers first."
"The whole point of this exercise is to get those answers, MacGillis."
"I just don't want you to forget it. You tend to be a little over-focused on your own stuff, Doc."
"You just ask the questions! I'll make sure she's willing to answer them."
Lois awoke to dull, throbbing pain. She tried to be glad it wasn't so bad this time, but she was afraid that wouldn't last. She turned her head slightly and saw the same dark mist again. She decided to take the initiative.
"Hello?" No response. "Is anyone there?" Still no response. "Help, Superman!"
Again, Superman loomed out of the mist and stood beside her. "I'm here, Lois."
She grunted against the dull ache in her bones. "No. You aren't Superman. I'm not even sure you're real."
"I'm real enough. I'm just here to make sure you answer the questions they ask you."
"What questions? My favorite snack? Color of my kitchen tile? Name of my fish? I would've told 'them' all that without all this stupid crap! What do 'they' really want?"
"They want you to answer their questions, Lois."
The mechanical voice spoke before Lois could yell back. "What's your favorite color, Lois?"
She became angry. "Red! For the blood you're going to have splattered all over your face when I get my hands on you! Aaahhh!"
"Please don't threaten me. Every time you refuse to answer correctly, the pain increases."
"Aaaggghhh! Yeah, I — figured that out."
"Very well. What is your favorite color?"
"Red. It really is!"
She braced herself, but the pain didn't increase.
"Very good. What model of computer do you use at work?"
"What? Why would you want to know — gaahhh! Okay! Okay! It's a HAL 2014 with sixty-four terabytes of optical storage!"
"Thank you. What kind of tires do you use on your Ferrari?"
"What? Wait! I don't own a Ferrari!"
The voice hesitated and Lois held her breath in fear that the pain would increase again. "Very good. What kind of tires do you use on your Jeep?"
"I — I don't know the brand! I swear it! They came with the Jeep!"
The pain jacked up a notch and she screamed. "Aaaggghhh! No! I really d-don't know! Please!"
The pain eased back to its previous level. "My apologies. I was testing you. Don't worry, you passed."
She tried not to, but she felt grateful. "Thank you."
"Don't mention it. What is your favorite sport?"
"Uh, football. Not soccer, not baseball! Football!"
"What is your favorite team?"
"You don't follow the Tigers?"
"Tiger fans are — eh, no. Agghh! Just the Dragons."
"Do you think the Dragons have a chance to win their division this year?"
"Ahh! Only if Kinneman s-stays healthy!"
"I agree. How many pairs of dress shoes do you own?"
"Uh! Eight, nine, maybe ten! I don't know for sure! Please!"
She waited, expecting another jolt, but instead the voice chuckled. "Actually, you have fourteen pair, plus two pair of house slippers and a mismatched set of well-worn running shoes."
"Oh. Sorry, I couldn't remember."
"You did well, Lois. Many professional women don't know how many pairs of shoes they own without counting them first."
She felt relief. Maybe this wouldn't be so terrible after all.
"I have some more questions for you now."
"Okay. Uhh! Go ahead."
"What story are you working on right now?"
She opened her mouth to answer, but then clicked her jaws shut. "No."
"Remember what I said about the pain?"
"Yes. Yaaaggghh! I said I remember!"
"But you didn't tell me what story you were working on right now."
"I — I can't!"
"Lois, what story are you working on now?"
"I can't tell you! No! Yaagghh! Stop!"
The voice remained calm, even as the pain increased. "Tell me what story you're working on."
"It's — no, I can't! Aaaggghhh! Please! No more! P- please!"
"You have to tell me what story you're working on, Lois."
"I — can't! You know I c-can't! Yaagghh!" She began crying again. "Help me! Please help me! Aaaahhh! S- somebody help me!"
Superman loomed above her head. "Lois, you have to answer their questions. I can't help you."
The pain ratcheted up again and she screamed in agony and terror. She wrenched her eyes in the direction of the image of the Man of Steel. "Aaaaaaagggghhhh! Help me! S- superman! Help me!"
"I can't, Lois, you know that."
"Then — then kill me! Don't let them -aaagghhh! — don't let them t-torture me like this! Kill me!"
"I can't, Lois. Superman doesn't kill."
"Don't leave me here like this! Let me die! Yaaaaggghhh! Aaaaggghhh! Please!"
The voice competed with the echoes of her screams. "What story are you working on, Lois?"
"No! Noooo! Aaaaagggghhh!"
She arched her back and her spine crackled. She coughed up blood and passed out once again.
"No! No pulse, no heartbeat! She's in defib! MacGillis, open the enclosure!"
"You freakin' idiot! I told you not to kill her!"
"Shut up and bring the cart over here! Charge to 200!"
"No good! Wait! No, it's okay, we have a rhythm. Looks good to me."
"As if you'd know. What's your medical degree in, anyway?"
"Okay, Proctor, you're the doctor. She gonna live?"
"Let me look. Yes, this is a normal sinus pattern. She'll be okay."
"Until the next time."
"We're running out of time. I don't know if we have more than one more session left."
"You mean, she doesn't have more than one more session left, don't you, Proctor?"
"Yeah, that's what I mean, she doesn't. I just wish I had more time!"
"Don't forget the boss's deadline! We should have had results by now."
"You think I don't know that?"
"I want you remember what you said, that she'd be babbling out her deepest and darkest secrets by now."
"She's stronger than I thought."
"You won't get anything by killing her!"
"Fine, fine! Next session, you have four minutes to get results. Then we jack it up until she either gives up the information or passes out."
"Or dies. Again."
"Yes. We won't try to revive her next time, either."
Carmen chortled and pointed at Clark's firm grip on the inside of the cockpit. "You need not hold on so tightly, Clark! I promise that I will not drop you!"
Clark adjusted his headset with one hand. "I believe you! I just don't like flying!"
"We are flying at only two thousand feet of altitude."
"Oh, terrific. That's about one thousand nine hundred ninety-eight feet higher than I'd like to be."
"Do not be alarmed. We will be there in a short time."
They glided through the air silently for a few minutes. Clark eventually relaxed a little. "You know, this isn't so bad. I could get used to this."
"I take it that you do not fly often?"
He grinned. "Me and airplanes don't get along too well. Even less with helicopters." He watched the trees skip past. "How much further?"
"At this speed, I think, perhaps ten minutes."
"Good. Hey, where'd you learn to fly this thing? You handle it pretty well."
"Thank you. I learned to fly in Colombia. I was born there."
"You were in the military?"
"No. I flew for one of the cocaine cartels."
Clark managed not to fall out of the aircraft. "Oh."
She shook her head. "You do not understand. I did not intend to be a criminal."
He waved his free hand at her. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."
She nodded. "Thank you. But I will tell you anyway.
"My parents died when a bomb exploded beside a police station. I was eleven. The bomb was set by one drug lord and was meant for another drug lord, and he survived because my parents stood between him and the explosion. He took into his care my older brother and myself. He fed us, clothed us, educated us, and taught us to fly. He believed that we would be loyal to him forever because he had helped us when we needed help.
"We worked as messengers between his headquarters and the fields, and as his personal pilots. Because we were so young, and because we never handled the drugs, the military and the police would leave us alone. Or so we thought.
"My brother was shot down and killed by the Colombian army when I was nineteen. They claimed it was a mistake, that they had intended to shoot down a drug courier. I have never believed them. I think they were trying to kill my employer.
"The drug lord went into hiding and I was left alone. I knew how much danger I was in, so I stole one of his helicopters and flew to the American embassy. I asked for asylum, and, well, I am now here." She hesitated. "I had always planned to escape with my brother, but — it was not to be."
"Wow. That's quite a story, Carmen. You ever put that down on paper?"
She favored him with a thousand-watt smile. "No. I would prefer not to read the story of my life in your newspaper. There may yet be some people in Colombia who would like to locate me. I have told you this only because I think we must trust each other with our lives very soon."
He frowned. "What do you mean by that?"
"I must land so you may find your lady, but I cannot land beside the house else they will know we are there. If that happens, they would kill your lady and run, and perhaps kill us as well. This would not be good. We must land some distance away and walk to them. I do not know what we will find when we arrive, but I suspect that taking your Lois away from these bad men will not be a simple thing."
Clark nodded. Since she didn't know he was Superman, her reasoning made perfect sense. "Okay. But you have to promise me to be careful."
"You forget that you are speaking to a woman who survived the cocaine wars in Colombia. I think you should assure me that you will be careful."
"Next session is ready. Time is two-fifty-eight PM. Subject continues to be disoriented and is increasingly fearful. We will begin with stimulant levels at sixty percent and reduce by five percent for each question answered correctly. We will begin with primer questions, then proceed to urgent questions. We will use all three images this time. Beginning session — now."
Lois awoke to fierce pain throughout her body. Her wrists and ankles now joined the cacophony of pain with an awareness of sharp cuts and throbbing abrasions. Her knees and hips ached and burned in harmony with the waves of pain already crashing over her mind.
Fear grabbed her by the throat and refused to release her. She let go of her determination to resist and wept bitterly. She was convinced that the pain would never stop, that she'd die on this table and never see Clark again, never get the chance to tell him -
She suddenly realized that she hadn't seen or heard from a Clark impersonator. Maybe these clowns didn't know about him. Maybe they just didn't think she was that close to him.
Of course! They'd been using familiar images to undermine her resistance. They'd used Perry and Lucy, and especially Superman, to convince her to cooperate. But they hadn't used Clark! She knew something they didn't! Clark would never tell her to betray the Planet! He was her best friend! He'd always stand beside her! He'd save her if he could!
She desperately grasped the straw her thoughts had dangled in her mind and held on to it for all she was worth. The pain was still there and she cried out again, but the hope that had been creeping away on kitten's paws came galloping back.
Superman loomed out of the mist at the head of her bed once again. "Lois, I'm still here."
She gritted her teeth and snarled. "So what? You're not — ahhh! You're not helping me!"
"I told you, Lois, if I help you —"
"Then others will die! I don't believe you!"
A woman's voice called out from her right. "Lois, he's telling the truth. You have to answer their questions."
"No! Yaagghh! I won't! If I do then p-people could really die!"
She came closer. Lois could see Lucy's profile in the mist. "If you want to live, Lois, you have to answer their questions."
"I won't! Aaaggghh! I'll die first!"
Perry appeared to her left. "Honey, you don't need to do that. Just answer their questions. It's okay, I promise."
Lois arched her back again and her hands locked into the shape of claws. The pain increased and she screamed her throat raw. Lucy and Perry faded away as if they'd never even been there.
Clark. She concentrated on thinking about Clark. The thought of his tall, strong presence calmed her slightly and helped her concentrate.
He had to find her. He had to come. Soon. Very soon. Before it was too late.
The mechanical voice drifted out of the mist. It was level and calm and even, just as it always had been. "Lois, is your sister left-handed or right-handed?"
The pain eased slightly and she panted until she caught up on her oxygen debt. The voice asked, "Lois, what color is your everyday purse?"
"Black! It's black!"
The pain eased again. Lois wept with relief.
"Very good. What color underwear do you usually wear on workdays?"
"Uh. Either white or tan."
The pain slipped further away. She shook herself. "Why are you doing this?"
"Doing what, Lois?"
"Why are you turning the pain down?"
"Do you prefer more pain over less pain?"
She almost panicked. "No! Nonononono! Please! I — I just asked!"
"It's okay, Lois. If you answer truthfully, the pain will ease off. Answer with less than the truth, and, well, I think you know what will happen."
"Y-yes, I know." Fear jumped back onto her chest and gripped her with razor claws. They'd never let her go. They'd get whatever they could from her and then kill her. The only choices she had left was how much pain she'd suffer before she died, and whether or not she was willing to give them what they wanted in exchange for a quick death. And, had someone asked her in that moment which way she'd choose, she didn't know what she'd say.
"Good, Lois. Now, one more quick question. How much mileage is on your Jeep?"
"Uh, uh, I think, about twenty-two thousand. No! Twenty-six! It's twenty-six thousand, I'm sure!"
The pain slipped a little further away. "Very good. That's close enough. Now we come to the interesting questions again."
"Lois, what story are you working on at the Planet?"
The moment of truth had come. She hesitated for a breath, then decided. She refused to buy a peaceful death with betrayal, one that might doom others. "I, I'm working on a water department kickback story." The pain level jumped up again and her heart began beating rapidly, almost fluttering, as if it were running a race all by itself. "Aaaggghhh! It's the truth! You can — you can check my computer at work! My notes are in the f-folder — labeled Water and Sewage! Aaaggghhhchchch!"
She coughed up flecks of blood again. She thought she heard a ghostly voice say something about a vee-tack, but she wasn't sure. She coughed again and the pressure in her chest eased a bit. The pain levels didn't increase, not right away. Maybe they bought it. Maybe Clark was coming.
The voice came back. "That's not the story we meant, Lois. There's another one that's just a little more important. What is it?"
"I — I c-can't tell you! Aaaggghhh! No! NOOOO!"
She screamed and fell into the pit.
"Is she dead, Doc?"
"I don't know — wait, there's a pulse. Wow. I thought she was really gone that time. She's strong."
"Yeah, too strong for your drugs. We need to pop her and get out of here."
"No! One more session and she'll crack! I'm sure of it!"
"You already had your 'one more session' and it didn't work!"
"I've found the combination now, MacGillis, I'm sure of it."
"She's already lasted longer than anyone else has! That football player you tested this setup on would have wet himself twice and fed both his mother and sister into a wood chipper by now! I don't think you can break her!"
"One more session and —"
"We're already past our deadline, Doc! Somebody's gonna get curious and we'll have to shoot our way out or get caught!"
"I'm not going back to prison, MacGillis. I was on Death Row. Two guards were killed when the boss broke me out. They'd sooner shoot me than catch me. I won't go back to prison just to die."
"Fine! Let me kill her now! It'd be merciful, at least!"
"One more session, just one more. If she doesn't talk, I'll kill her myself."
"One more! You know how much money this information is worth!"
"Just one more?"
"I promise. One more and that's it, win or lose."
"Okay. Just get something out of her this time, will you?"
Carmen guided her craft over a small farmhouse beside a newly cleared field. The field was large enough for a small helicopter to land but way too small for any legitimate farm activity. She pointed down and said, "That is the field."
"Where will you land?"
"Do you see that hill ahead of us?" Clark nodded. "We will land on the far side. There is enough clear area there to set down safely. We will then walk back as quickly as the terrain allows."
"Carmen, you don't have to come —"
She reached under the seat and pulled out a webbed pistol belt. "But I insist. I will cover your backside for you."
He grinned. "I think you mean, 'cover my back.'"
She goggled. "Not your backside?"
"No." He pointed to what he was sitting on. "That's a backside."
She smiled. "I see. Then, despite the obvious appeal of covering your very attractive backside, I will instead cover your back."
"Sure I can't talk you out of it?"
"You cannot. Hold on tightly, we are landing now."
The landing was smooth as butter, and Carmen let the rotor windmill down of its own accord. "It will sound to anyone listening in or near the house that we have flown past. We may now proceed."
He watched her buckle the pistol belt around her waist. She looked more than competent, especially when she took the pistol out of the holster, checked the magazine, then jacked a cartridge into the chamber. He shook his head. "Lead on, MacDuff."
She cocked her head to one side as she re-holstered the pistol. "My name is Avanzano, not MacDuff. And we are to call each other by our first names. Do you not recall this?"
He grinned. "Sorry. Lead on, Carmen."
She nodded and set a brisk pace.
They crested the hill and scampered down the far side. She was good in the woods, too. She wasted no motion and made no unnecessary conversation. She paused only to listen and to choose her path. Clark couldn't see the farmhouse because of the uneven ground without his X-ray vision, but he knew where it was and that they were moving quickly towards it while remaining under cover.
Carmen lifted her pistol from the holster again as they walked up a slight incline, then raised her hand. Clark stopped and waited as she peered through the underbrush at the edge of the clearing where the house sat. She turned to look at him and motioned for him to lean closer.
She whispered, "There is only one guard, but he carries an assault rifle. He would surely kill us both if we are discovered. But I have an idea." She handed him the pistol and gun belt. "Here, hold this. Do not use it unless you have no choice."
"What are you doing?"
She tugged her shirt further open at the top and mussed her hair with one hand. "I am a foolish but very attractive woman driver whose car is disabled. I am now lost in the woods. I think he will let me get close enough."
"Close enough for what?"
She grinned and winked. "Watch and see."
She limped out of the brush, groaning as if she'd just run a marathon. The guard snapped his rifle up but held his fire. She lifted her head and smiled, then hunched towards him. Clark was surprised that she somehow managed to appear smaller and less competent than she had been up to that moment. She was good at this.
"Oh! Sir! Please you would help me! In these trees I am lost! My car, she is broken and I cannot run her! I require for you to help me, please!"
Clark lifted his eyebrow at her accent, which was suddenly much thicker. The man looked at her wonderingly, then hungrily, as she limped closer and leaned forward to show him her cleavage.
"Please help me, sir! My car, she does not run. I do not know about them. I have walk many hour to come here. I am — so tired —"
She wavered as if near fainting, and he obligingly reached out to catch her with his left hand. The moment he came close enough, she rammed her knee into his crotch, and as he folded up she whipped her interlocked hands down on the back of his neck. He dropped the rifle as he fell and didn't move once he hit the ground.
Carmen moved the rifle out of his reach and waved to Clark. As he approached, she quickly searched the guard's pockets and came up with another magazine of ammunition and a shiny metal key. She put them aside, then reached down and grabbed the man's head between her hands.
Clark suddenly realized she meant to break the guard's neck. He dropped the pistol and gun belt and grabbed her wrists just in time to stop her. "Carmen! No! You can't do that!"
She glared at him and whispered fiercely, "Why do you stop me? He may recover and call for others! We cannot leave him alive!"
"I won't let you kill him! We're here to rescue Lois, not avenge her!"
She stared at him for several long moments, then released the man's head. "You are a fool, but she is your Lois. Come, we must make hastiness." She picked up the AK- 47 and stood.
Clark frowned. "You know how to use that thing?"
"Of course. One learns many useful skills in Colombia."
She checked the rifle's magazine and chamber as competently as she had the pistol, then slid the key into the brand new lock above the doorknob and slowly turned it. The bolt slid quietly back from the door frame. Carmen slowly twisted the door handle and gently pushed the door open. Clark picked up the pistol and belt, then followed her.
"Final session. Subject is on the verge of total systemic collapse and cannot survive any additional sessions. We will begin with thirty-five percent lethal levels and progress to the subject's death. We will extract whatever information we can before terminating the experiment."
"Terminate the subject, you mean."
"That's a given. We're past our deadline now. Whatever we get now will be all we'll get. It's time to cut our losses and move forward."
"You're cold-blooded, Doc, you know that?"
"So I've been told. Final session, MacGillis. Are you ready?"
"Yeah. Let's get this over with."
Carmen slipped silently into the single-story farmhouse and turned right to clear the room. Clark already knew that the only possible place for anyone to be was in the lead- lined basement, but he followed Carmen and stepped to the left, all the while holding the pistol pointing down with his finger off the trigger. They cleared the few ground floor rooms quickly, then Carmen pointed at the door in the middle of the main room which led down into the basement. They made eye contact and Clark nodded.
The pain was less intense this time, but Lois was past caring. If Clark was coming, he was too late. It didn't matter what happened to her now. She only wanted the torture to stop, even if it took dying.
"Lois? Lois, wake up. You have to answer their questions."
"Uhhh. Go away."
"Lois, it's Superman."
She groaned again. "No. You're — you're not Superman. You're just — aaahhh! — you're here to help them get answers from me."
The pain intensified slightly and she jerked against her restraints. She thought she felt blood on her wrists and hands.
Superman knelt down beside her and put his face next to hers. "I can't help you, Lois. You have to answer their questions or they'll kill you."
She panted and refused to look at him. Tears flowed down into her ears. "They -they're going to kill me anyway! Aaaggghh! Let them! I can't t-take any more!"
"Lois, you need to answer their questions."
The pain leaped in intensity and every muscle in her body jerked. "Ahhh! Kill me! Either g-get me out of here or kill me! I can't take it any more!" Her scream faded to a blubbery sob. "P-please let me die! Please! Gaaahhh! It hurts! It hurts so much!"
"I can't help you, Lois. You'll have to answer their questions."
Superman faded from her sight. The mechanical voice appeared again. "Once more, Lois. What story are you working on right now?"
She groaned and spluttered a bitter laugh. "My obituary!"
To her surprise, the pain didn't increase. "Are you certain of that, Lois?"
"Yes! Yaaggghh! Yes, I'm sure! You — you won't let me out of here! You can't let me live! Aaaggghhh! Just let me die! Yaaahhh! Kill me! Please! Just k-kill me!"
The pain jumped another level and she screamed again.
"Are you ready to answer — what's that — look out!"
Lois didn't respond. She wept tears of bitter inevitability and waited for the final fade to black.
Carmen slowly pulled open the basement door and invalidated the soundproofing. Clark heard Lois's scream and he tried to jump past Carmen, but she barred his way and leaped down the steps three at a time.
Clark was right behind her as she kicked in the plywood door in front of them. He saw two men standing beside a console. The one in front of the microphone shouted "Look out!" The other man spun away from his dials and displays and wrestled a pistol from under his jacket.
Clark hesitated. Should he use his heat vision to make the weapon too hot to hold? Or should he try to talk them into surrendering? Or should he abandon his secret identity for Lois's sake? Before he could decide, Carmen shoved him to one side and opened fire.
The AK-47 was set to full automatic and she emptied the magazine. Both men died in a spray of blood and steel- jacketed bullets. The plastic console behind them shook with the impact of the rounds that missed the men. It caught fire and began melting.
Clark was momentarily stunned, then horrified. Two men had just been killed before his eyes, and he'd been too indecisive to help them. He could have resisted Carmen's shove and acted, but he hadn't. He'd let Clark Kent stand between Superman and the prevention of two deaths.
He looked at the pistol in his hand, then dropped it on the floor. He looked at his other hand and was surprised to find the pistol belt still wadded up in it. He opened his fingers and watched the belt fall. He wished he could drop his guilt as well. Like Scarlett O'Hara, he'd think about it later.
He heard Carmen replace the magazine in the rifle. Clark finally roused himself and scrambled to his feet, then smashed through the opaque plastic covering the wooden framework on the other side of the console. While Carmen checked the two men and made sure no one else was lurking around, Clark tore down the rest of the plastic sheeting and stared in horror at the woman on the gurney.
Lois was wearing a short-sleeved orange jumpsuit with no shoes or socks, and she was bleeding slowly from several scrapes on her wrists and ankles. Her eyes were crushed shut and her face was tear-stained. She was writhing and groaning in pain, muttering 'no, no, no' between gasps. Clark tore the restraints from her body and closed the IV in her left elbow, then disconnected it from the tubes trailing from the low ceiling. Then he peeled the wires from her head and body.
He lifted her head gently and spoke urgently. "Lois! Lois, can you hear me? Lois!"
She slowly opened her eyes but didn't seem to recognize him. "No! I won't tell! You'll have to kill me! I won't tell!"
"Lois, it's me, Clark! I'm here to help you!"
She coughed and tried to push him away. "No! You won't help! Go away!"
Carmen leaned into the ruined enclosure. "Clark, you must bring her. We must leave now."
"But she's hurt! She's been drugged somehow!"
"All the more reason to leave! We must gain medical assistance for her!" Clark hesitated and Carmen grabbed his arm. "If we are discovered here our mission will have been in vain! We will all die, including your Lois!"
That got his attention. He lifted the still groaning and writhing woman off the gurney and carried her up the steps. Carmen led them, her rifle ready to fire at a moment's notice.
As they exited the house, Clark saw that the guard was gone. "Hurry!" Carmen whispered urgently. "We do not know where they are or how many they are. We must become borne in the air very quickly!"
Clark nodded and began following her. He bit his lip at the delay. Even though Carmen was sprinting and leaping through the woods at nearly her top speed, it galled him to move so slowly to a helicopter that would also move slowly, at least compared to Superman's average rate of travel. He kept up with Carmen and did his best to smooth out Lois's journey. Lois still seemed to be in extreme pain, but other than the abrasions on her wrists and ankles he couldn't find any obvious injuries.
As they topped the last rise, Carmen called out, "Take her into the back seat with you! Strap in yourself and make certain she does not fall!" Carmen threw the AK-47 to the ground and grabbed a headset as she leaped into the pilot's seat. Clark heard her mutter in Spanish, "This takeoff will not be by the book!"
Clark gently carried Lois with him to the back seat of the copter. As he sat down, Lois opened her eyes. She lifted one hand and pushed on his chest and murmured, "No, no, no." Then she made eye contact with him. She reached up and touched his face, then looked at her hand.
"Clark? Is it — are you really — am I dead?"
He smiled slightly. "No, Lois, it's me. You're alive, you're free. We're taking you to the hospital so they can help you. Are you hurt?"
She suddenly jerked in his arms as if she'd been electrocuted. "Aaahhh! It hurts! It hurts! Make it stop! Yaaagghh! Please!"
He held her tightly as Carmen revved up the rotor. She leaned over the seat and shouted, "Put on your headset! Hold tightly to your Lois! We are flying out from here most quickly!"
He slipped on the headset one-handed and braced himself. The copter leaped off the ground, leaned forward, and scudded across the treetops. Clark could hear Carmen on the radio, calling the hospital first with news that she was bringing in a patient, then the police to report the location of the farmhouse and its contents.
"Clark? We will arrive at the hospital in perhaps twenty minutes. Is your Lois still alive?"
"Yes!" he shouted. "Don't slow down!"
"I do not intend to do so. Remain holding her."
He held Lois as she writhed aimlessly in his arms. He kept telling her he was there and wouldn't let anyone hurt her. After several minutes, she opened her eyes again and froze in amazement when she saw him.
"Clark?" She slowly lifted her hand again and touched his face. "Clark? Are you here? Are you really here?"
He drew her closer but held her easily. "Yes, I'm here, Lois. I won't let anything or anyone else hurt you."
She looked around and finally seemed to realize she wasn't where she had been. "What happened? How did you find me?"
"I'll tell you everything later, I promise. We're almost to the hospital now. The doctors will make sure you're okay."
Pain still glimmered in her eyes, but it was fading, to be replaced by wondrous joy. "You — you came for me. No one else would help me — but you came for me." She squeezed her eyes shut and leaned against him, then wrapped her arms around his chest and tried to crush him. "Perry wouldn't help. Lucy wouldn't help. Even Superman wouldn't — " Her body vibrated against his as she sobbed out her relief. "But — you came for me." She spoke so softly, a normal human wouldn't have heard. "Oh, Clark. Thank you. Thank you for my life."
He held her and stroked her hair, unable to speak.
Carmen broke into his reverie. "Clark, we are ready to descend. There is an ambulance beside the landing pad. There are many policemen there also. You will tell them, I hope, that I shot those men in self-defense during the noble rescue of your missing Lois?"
He nodded, then realized she couldn't see him over her shoulder. "I'll tell them. I wish you hadn't shot those guys, but I'm not sure you had much choice. At least one of them already had a gun out. And I'll try to convince the FAA not to do anything more than frown at you for violating Federal flight regulations."
She smiled. "Thank you. We are landing now, so please do not distract me with shouts or screams. I have not done this before."
"What, set down beside a hospital?"
"No. Land willingly beside so many police officers. I hope they listen very attentively to you. I still wish to become a citizen of this country."
Clark smiled. "Oh, yeah, I'd forgotten. I'll do my very best to keep you in the clear, Carmen, but I'll have to tell them the whole truth."
She nodded. "I feared you would be like that."
"Noble to the point of foolishness. Ah, we have now touched down. Please take your Lois to the ambulance while I attempt to convince these men with the serious faces that I am truly a good girl."
Perry found Clark in Lois's hospital room, sitting beside her bed and holding her hand. "Hi, Clark. Is she asleep?"
"Yes, finally. She keeps moving around like she's still hurting a little, but at least she's resting now."
"What's the prognosis?"
"They say she'll make a full physical recovery. They don't think there'll be any scarring on her wrists or ankles from the restraints."
"That's good to hear. What did those thugs do to her?"
"They pumped a psychotropic drug cocktail combined with some kind of pain stimulant into her bloodstream and augmented it with electrical stimulation. The doctors said she was subjected to the most intense pain a human being can experience. She's fortunate to be alive. She — " His voice tightened and he hesitated, then continued, "Her body will be fine, but her mental recovery may take a while."
Perry nodded. "Has Dr. Friskin been here?"
"Yes. All they did was talk a little and agree to talk again tomorrow. I haven't been able to leave her side since we got here."
"Oh? Why is that?"
Clark smiled and pointed to his other hand, captured firmly in Lois's grasp. "She won't let me go. She's asleep and still won't let me go." He hesitated, then continued. "Those guys had 3-D projection units on the outside of that enclosure she was in. They were showing her people she knew who refused to help her. They were trying to break her resistance, to force her to cooperate with them." He sighed. "They didn't show her my image. She said she hung on by focusing on me." He lifted their joined hands an inch, then lowered them back to the bed. "I think she's still hanging onto me."
Perry quietly pulled up a chair and patted Clark on the shoulder. "Tell me exactly what happened, starting with you leaving the Planet to check out her Jeep."
Perry leaned in and listened as Clark outlined the whole adventure as far as he knew it. "Good work, Clark. Really good work. I just want to know how you found the helicopter so quickly."
He ducked his head and smiled crookedly. "Dumb luck, Chief, just plain old dumb luck. Once I found out what kind of chopper it probably was, I figured it had to be a private craft, and I hoped they weren't pilots themselves, and do you know how many private, business, and personal use helicopters of that type there are in Metropolis? Bunches of them, let me tell you. If I'd shown up five minutes later, Carmen would've been gone and I would have missed her." He shuddered. "I knew Lois was in some danger, but I never imagined how much. It scares me to think how close a call this was." He hesitated. "Perry, I was almost — I was almost too late to help her." He squeezed his eyes shut. "I don't think I could have survived losing her."
"Reminds me of what she said about you not long ago when we thought those cloned gangsters had killed you. You and she should compare those notes soon." Perry squeezed his shoulder. "You stay with her as long as you need to. I'll write this one up and put your byline on it. You earned it."
"Thanks. What about Lois getting a byline too?"
Perry shook his head. "No. She is the story this time. She can do a first-person account when she feels up to it, but you get the banner by yourself this time, son." He stood up and frowned at Clark. "And I don't want to see you in the newsroom until Lois is better. I don't care how long it takes, understand?"
Clark looked at his boss and his friend, and he understood how badly shaken Perry also was. Clark realized again that Perry — in his gruff, fatherly way — loved Lois as much as he did. "Got it. I'll check in with you as soon as I have some news."
"Good. Say, that Carmen is a real pistol! She makes for great copy all by herself."
Clark smiled. "Make sure you mention her prominently in the story, Chief. I might not have found Lois at all without her help."
"Huh! She earned her fee, that's for sure. I've already approved the expenditure for the helicopter trip, along with a big thank-you bonus. And the police commissioner is planning to yell at her for tackling such a dangerous job without contacting the authorities, then call a press conference and give her a citizen's commendation for bravery."
"Good. Hey, wait a minute! Carmen's not a citizen yet, Perry."
Perry smiled. "We've arranged for her to take her test. When she takes the oath of citizenship, I want both you and Lois there, assuming Lois feels up to it. It'll be great for the paper, and great for Carmen too."
Clark nodded. "Have you talked to Bill Henderson yet? Do they know who those guys were or why they were doing this?"
"Part of it. One of them was an out-of-work actor named Kevin MacGillis. He was a specialist in vocal impersonations. You could give him a tape of almost anyone, man or woman, and he'd nail the voice by the next day. He'd been out of work for a couple of years because of his violent temper. He was on some daytime drama when he beat up a makeup intern for no apparent reason. He went to jail for assault and battery, and even with his incredible talent no one would hire him after he got out."
"He must have been the one who pulled the gun when Carmen and I opened the door."
"No, that was Doctor Montgomery Proctor, formerly a practicing experimental psychologist. He went to prison for murder about three years ago, sentenced to death for killing a policewoman during a traffic stop. Claimed she'd deliberately been rude to him."
"Huh. Sounds like a real nice fella."
"Oh, yeah, he was a real pussycat. Before his trial, he was on the CIA's payroll doing only they know what. The rumor is that he was an interrogation specialist who killed some people he was supposed to be questioning, so they dropped him like a live grenade. Somebody broke him out of Death Row a couple of weeks ago, presumably for this little assignment."
"What did they get from the computers in the farmhouse?"
Perry snorted. "Not much. When Carmen sprayed the room and killed MacGillis and Proctor, she shot up the computers pretty badly, too. Star Labs is trying to retrieve whatever data they can from the hard drives, but Jimmy got a look at them and he says they probably won't have much luck. The fire in the console melted most of the hardware that wasn't shot to pieces."
"But why Lois? Why torture Lois like this?"
Perry shrugged. "No one knows for certain. The best guess is that they wanted specific information from her."
"You think they got it?"
"If they had, all you would have found at the house was Lois's body. Whatever they wanted, they either didn't get it or weren't able to pass it along."
Clark nodded. "Who were they working for?"
Perry hesitated. "We don't know for sure."
"Is it related to something Lois was working on?"
Perry hesitated again. "Maybe." He exhaled deeply. "Probably."
Clark gently caressed Lois's hand. Her sleeping face, still tense with fear, relaxed noticeably. "What's Lois working on, Perry?"
"Besides the water department kickbacks?"
"I doubt the city manager would go this far."
"Yeah, me too." Perry sighed. "There's rumors about a new criminal organization moving into Metropolis and taking over where Luthor left off. The name we keep hearing is Intergang."
Clark frowned hard. "Why am I just now hearing about it?"
"Because we don't have any real proof. Lois was collecting rumor and innuendo to see if it all fit together. I told her not to share this story with anyone, you included, in case she found more facts to support the rumors. I didn't want anyone to be in danger." He rubbed his hands over his face. "Not one of my smartest decisions."
Clark thought of the dead men in the basement of the farmhouse. "Nobody makes the right decision every time, Perry, not even Superman." He hesitated. "Do those rumors and innuendoes fit together?"
Perry sighed again. "Two days ago, I would have said 'no,' but now I'm not so sure. It's not proof, but I can't think of any other person or group who'd have both the resources and the motive to do something like this. Lois must have asked the wrong person the wrong question, and someone got scared she knew something important or dangerous. Maybe when she feels better she'll have some ideas as to who that someone might have been."
Clark shook his head. "I hope you're wrong about this new group, Chief."
He looked into Perry's eyes. "Lex Luthor was a dangerous criminal, but he thought of himself as either a surgeon or an artist, and he tried to run his illegal activities in the same way. Minimum effort for maximum gain. If this is an example of the way Intergang works, they're more like an berserk rogue elephant, willing to trample anyone who gets in their way."
"I sure hope that doesn't come to pass, Clark. No one would be safe then, not reporters or police officers or even people in the District Attorney's office." He stood ramrod straight. "I've got to get back to the office. Call me as soon as she wakes up. I'll come over and fuss at her for getting into trouble. Again!" He patted Clark on the shoulder. "Good thing you kept at it, Clark. Even Superman would've had a hard time finding her under these circumstances. You did a fabulous job."
"And get some rest yourself, okay? Even if you were Superman, you'd still need to sleep occasionally."
She picked up her office phone before the second ring finished. "Right Now Deliveries, Carmen Avanzano speaking. We deliver anything to any place at a reasonable cost, and we deliver it right now. How may I help you today?"
"You may accept my congratulations, Ms. Avanzano. That was excellent work. You have reaffirmed my faith in you as one of my very best cleaners."
"I must apologize for allowing the guard to escape, sir. I could not clean him without harming Mr. Kent also. I will locate the man and terminate him if you wish it."
"No need. He knows nothing except that he was supposed to guard the house. He's not a loose end, and we can use him again on something else. Besides, this way Kent still thinks you're his angel. Your task is complete. And I admire the way you hustled Kent out of the farmhouse too quickly for him to ask any embarrassing questions."
"Thank you, Mr. Church. It is my pleasure to serve. I hope the project produced some positive results."
He exhaled deeply and the smile left his voice. "It did not. We got absolutely nothing from it except a risk of exposure. They didn't learn a thing about how much Lane and the Daily Planet know about our organization. And that's the last time I break a death row inmate out of prison, especially for a cockamamie project like this. It's way too expensive." She could hear him shifting in his chair. She never would have let any of her equipment squeak so loudly. "I didn't like this experiment to start with — it's not our preferred method of operation — but Proctor's attorney talked me into it. She's a greedy little wench. Which reminds me, have you found her yet?"
"I have, sir. She is vacationing in Aruba, despite the tragic news that she has lost a very valuable client. Sadly, she will suffer a scuba diving accident the day after tomorrow and drown."
"I appreciate your efficiency, Ms. Avanzano. I hope you found your remuneration sufficient."
"No, sir, but I believe the amount of money you placed in my Cayman Islands account was more than generous."
"Ha-ha-ha! You're as witty as ever. I always enjoy speaking with you, Carmen."
"There is one more thing, sir, if you please."
Carmen frowned to herself. "The original plan, as you know, sir, was for me to bring Mr. Kent to the empty farmhouse after several days and discover poor Ms. Lane's dead body, but he located me far more quickly than I had anticipated he would. He might not appear to be a threat, but I think he is one who must be watched. He might prove dangerous to the entire enterprise."
"Hmm. I see what you mean. That's a very logical analysis. I'll take it under advisement. And thank you for the excellent thought, Carmen. Good-bye."
"Have a nice day, Mr. Church."
Carmen hung up and grinned to herself. Too bad Kent was already spoken for. He might have provided her some good sport. They would have been good together.
For a little while, at least.
Author's notes: Thanks to my faithful Beta readers, Ray and Wanda, for their insightful perseverance and always helpful suggestions. The title of this piece was inspired by a sequence in a Babylon 5 episode (season 1 episode #5 'Parliament of Dreams') where the Narn ambassador is threatened by an assassin who taunts him repeatedly with this almost-haiku. As always, I gleefully invite your feedback. Let me know what you thought of it! And thanks for making it to the end!