briarwood: Gal Godot as Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman 1)
Morgan Briarwood ([personal profile] briarwood) wrote2016-07-25 08:18 am
Entry tags:

The Memories That Haunt Us (4/5)

Chapter 4: One Bad Day



Washington DC


The senate hearings that followed the destruction of Metropolis largely exonerated Superman from blame, at least on the legal level. While it was clear he was the focus of the invasion, the committee accepted that he was not to blame for a situation effectively created when he was a baby. He had, after all, turned himself in to the custody of the US after Zod’s threat was broadcast to the world. The deaths in Metropolis and the damage to the city were officially deemed the result of a war declared by Zod. Superman accepted the responsibility for his part in the battle, but almost everyone believed that if Superman had held back, the outcome would have been far worse.


But there was another side to the public hearings: the backroom deal that ensured the favourable public report. It wasn't what anyone really wanted, but Superman, faced with so much evidence of the damage he had caused, not just to buildings but to lives, accepted the terms the group eventually presented. It seemed, at the time, a reasonable compromise. On the face of it, Superman conceded very little.


He agreed to respect the constitution and laws of the United States, which was something he had already stated publicly. In return, the authorities agreed to the same standard, meaning Superman couldn't be held to account for something he might do in the future, only for something he had actually done. Since he refused to confirm where in the US he lived, that gave the committee chaired by Senator Finch effective oversight over his activities, if and when she chose to exercise it. Superman had agreed to accept that authority, while warning that their agreement wouldn’t last if it were abused.


In return for agreeing to help should disaster strike in the US - again, something he would have done anyway - the committee recognised that he was not a tool of the US government to be used against their enemies: they could ask for his help, but he wasn’t obligated to follow orders. It was suggested that in the event of a worldwide emergency, such as the invasion, that might not apply, but everyone knew that Superman could not be forced to do anything. He was simply too powerful.


It seemed like a good deal until the incident in the Nairomi desert. Superman hadn’t broken any laws, and nothing in the agreement forbade him from acting as he did. But the stories being told about the incident painted a very different picture. The committee had no choice but to act.


He knew, now, that it had been a well-planned ambush, designed to make him react just as he had. Lex Luthor, of course, was one of the committee that negotiated the terms, so he knew - possibly even wrote - the fine print. But Superman couldn't prove that Luthor engineered the Nairomi incident. He couldn't even prove it was engineered. Lois testified that Amajagh’s security were white men, but she had seen almost none of the battle and couldn’t testify to who Superman did or did not kill. Jimmy testified that he was given the tracker by someone he believed to be CIA, but the CIA declined to confirm or deny involvement, and Jimmy’s story came across as a fabrication.


Most damning of all was the physical evidence from the scene. Superman had burned the weapons, yes, but he had been careful to make sure no one was trapped or harmed in the fires he started. Yet there was no question people died there. Not one man of Amajagh’s rebel army survived. But no body of a white man was found among the dead to support Lois’s testimony. Worse, the government convoy Superman had seen from the air - with hindsight, he knew those troops had killed everyone in the compound - had also attacked the nearby villages. The reason wasn’t clear, and the Nairomi government denied the army had been there. So that, too, was blamed on Superman.


And Superman could not in all honesty deny he was responsible. He had been naïve to think he could leave the compound without consequences. He didn’t regret putting Lois and Jimmy’s safety first, but he should have gone back when they were safe. He should have helped the villages, at the very least. He killed none of them directly, but he could not escape his share of the blame for those deaths. He could have prevented the massacre. He had let it happen.


The hearing wasn’t a trial, but it felt like one. Superman listened to testimony from survivors and from forensics experts who had examined what was left in the compound. He heard no lies, but the whole built up to a distorted picture. When the morning ended, Superman wasn’t at all confident that the committee would accept his word as truth. Superman had done a lot of good, but this one incident seemed set to eclipse it all.


“We have all been so caught up in what Superman can do,” Senator Finch declared, as she concluded the morning’s session, “we haven’t stopped to ask what he should do.”


She looked at Superman as she spoke and he held his tongue with an effort. She was judging him before he even had a chance to speak.


Finch turned to the woman who had been last to testify. “This committee will hold Superman responsible for his actions in Nairomi. I want to thank you for the courage you have shown in coming here today.”


He had no desire to face the press so Superman remained in the chamber while the committee broke for lunch.


Lois stayed with him. “What a bitch!” she flared as soon as they were relatively alone.


Superman was grateful she came so quickly to his defence, but he had to disagree.


“She’s only doing what she thinks is right,” he said unhappily.


“She should at least have given you some warning! You’re entitled to see the evidence against you before a trial.”


“The senator probably thought I wouldn’t come if I knew,” Superman said. “Anyway, this isn’t a trial.”


“Bullshit, it’s not. It’s the closest you’ll get to one. This isn’t fair.”


Superman nodded. “You’re right, it’s not fair, but Lois, put yourself in their place. If you didn’t know the truth, what would you see?”


“Are you defending this?”


“No, I hate it. But I’m saying I get it. From the first time I put this costume on, I’ve had enemies. I’ve had people who hate me just because I’m different. I’ve seen people scared of me because they don’t trust what I am. That isn’t going away, and I don’t care what they think. You know the truth, that’s all I care about.”


“So we let them lie?”


“No one lied, Lois. No one saw Knyazev and his mercenaries leave the compound. Everyone who knew they were there, except you, me and Jimmy, is dead. The witnesses this morning talked about what they saw, but none of them were inside the compound so they didn’t see that.”


“That right there is why I’m mad,” Lois said. “No one saw, except us, and they’ve decided we’re not telling the truth! If this was a proper trial, that’s reasonable doubt. They’re calling it proof of guilt.”


“All Finch said is that I’m accountable for my actions. It sounded like she’s already decided, but we don’t know that. This afternoon, I get to tell my side of what happened. I'm going to tell the truth.”


“What if they don’t believe you?” Lois asked.


Superman took her hand in his. “If they don’t believe me, you and Clark will keep looking for the proof.”


Lois managed a weak smile. “Me and Clark. Yes.”


 


 


In the end, the truth didn’t matter. Clark remembered Bruce’s advice and was prepared to defend what he had done, but it quickly became clear that no one on the committee cared.


“Do you understand, Superman,” Senator Finch asked him, “that the Nairomi government considers your unilateral action on their sovereign territory an act of war?”


Superman had not known that. “How can it be an act of war if I acted alone?”


Secretary Swanwick answered, “They don’t think you did. Our diplomats have been trying to establish relations with Nairomi, and from their point of view we unleashed a weapon of mass destruction in their territory.”


“Mass destruction? That’s - ” Superman broke off. In fact it was a pretty good description of what he could do.


“Whatever your intentions,” Finch said, “these state-level interventions will always be problematic. I think we need more time to consider how to handle events like these.”


“As Secretary Swanwick just pointed out, the US does not currently have formal diplomatic relations with Nairomi,” Superman said, trying to quote Bruce’s words exactly. “Two of our citizens were being threatened by a terrorist organisation. What did I do that our own special forces wouldn’t have done, if they were there?”


“That’s not the point, Superman,” Finch said. She glanced at her colleagues and he saw each of them nod, once.


They had already decided what they were going to do. Without even listening to him, they had decided.


She turned back to Superman. “We are very aware that this government has no way to enforce our decision. We can only ask for your cooperation, for the sake of this country and in the spirit of the agreement we all made last time we were here.”


“What decision?” Superman asked, conceding absolutely nothing until he knew what they wanted.


“You are to confine your activities to this continent, North America, until such time as we can create a framework of guidance for your actions on the international stage.”


He blinked. “You want me to stay here. To stop giving my help when it’s needed elsewhere. I’m an American, senator, but I’m here for everyone. The whole planet.”


“It won’t be forever,” Finch began.


“How long?”


“Until we agree...”


“Indefinite, in other words. We might never agree.” Superman turned to Swanwick. “We’ve had this conversation before. You don’t control me. You can’t.”


“You’re the one who created an international incident,” Swanwick said. “You are right, this isn’t something that will be resolved quickly. The wheels of the United Nations move slowly and that’s where this could end up. But you put our backs against the wall. You do not want to force our hand here, Superman. You’re in the wrong this time.”


Superman could not concede that last point. But he trusted Swanwick. “I will agree to, how did you put it? I will ‘confine my activities’ to North America for the time being. But not forever, Mr Secretary. Only until the situation becomes untenable.”


“What does that mean?” Finch demanded.


It was Swanwick who answered her. “He means that people are going to die because we’re stopping him from saving their lives. You’ve won, June. Take what he offered or give it up.” He sounded bitter.


The silence stretched out until Senator Finch broke it.


“Thank you, Superman.”


“Senator,” he said coldly. In a blur of red and blue, he was gone.


 


 

Metropolis



Clark Kent was fast establishing a reputation at the Daily Planet for journalism that was strong on human interest without being sentimental. He had published some successful stories under his byline, but he wasn’t yet in a position to turn down an assignment. That was the only reason he agreed to return to Lex Luthor’s house to cover his benefit for the “Friends of Metropolis Library”. It wasn’t the first high society function Clark had covered, and these assignments were not exactly challenging journalism. Unless something unexpected happened the story practically wrote itself.


So it was without much enthusiasm that Clark joined the reporters from other news outlets, all gathered in the large atrium of Luthor’s home, watching the wealthy and powerful arrive. Only a year ago, a gathering like this would have been challenging for him. So many different voices speaking all at once, so many different scents, of perfumes, cosmetics, and more. It could be disorienting, too much to sort through. But a year of living in a busy city had acclimated him and it was, at least, no longer difficult to stand in a crowd and blend in.


Then he saw someone he had not expected climbing out of a black sports car. Bruce Wayne, while frequently seen at events like this one in Gotham, rarely did so in Metropolis. Wayne didn’t even glance at the gathered reporters, though cameras flashed and some of them called his name, looking for his attention. He gave no sign he saw Clark there, either, but Clark was sure that Bruce noticed everything and everyone.


This presented an opportunity Clark didn't want to miss.


Clark waited until it seemed everyone who was likely to make an appearance was present. Then he made his way carefully through the crowd. A waiter offered him a glass of wine. He accepted it but didn’t drink; it was just a prop to help him blend in.


“Mr Wayne,” he called, raising his voice just a little as he saw Bruce coming up a staircase. What on earth had he been doing in the basement? “Mr Wayne,” he repeated as he caught up with the other man, and, as Bruce turned to face him, “Clark Kent, Daily Planet.”


Bruce met his eyes, and for an instant Clark saw the driven man he was coming to know. Then the mask took his place and Bruce’s look became dismissive. “Uh, my foundation has already issued a statement in support of - ” he began, then began to turn away, his eyes following a woman who was passing them.


“What’s your position on the Bat vigilante in Gotham?” Clark interrupted, loud enough for the people around them to hear.


Bruce shook his head as if to clear it. “Pretty girl. Bad habit,” he muttered, then looked at Clark, leaning a little toward him. “Daily Planet. Wait, do I own this one? Or is that the other guy?”


Clark understood the game, or thought he did, but he pressed on. He wanted people to see him pushing Bruce on this subject. He wanted word to get to Lex. “Civil liberties are being trampled on in your city, Mr Wayne. Good people living in fear.”


“Don’t believe everything you hear, son,” Bruce said, his voice dropping low.


It was, Clark thought, a signal to drop it, but he saw Mercy Graves watching them in interest. “I’ve seen it,” he insisted. “He thinks he’s above the law.”


Bruce took a step closer to him. “The Daily Planet criticising those who think they’re above the law is a little, uh, hypocritical, wouldn’t you say? Considering that every time your hero saves a kitten out of a tree you write a puff-piece editorial.”


Clark drew a breath to argue.


But Bruce wasn’t done. “...About an alien,” he snarled, “who, if he wanted to, could burn the whole place down. There wouldn’t be a damn thing we could do to stop it.”


Clark was taken aback by the venom in the words. If it was an act, it was a good one, and it still hurt. He answered, speaking quietly, “Most of the world doesn’t share your opinion, Mr Wayne.” Absurdly, he wanted to apologise, but swallowed the words.


Wayne offered a cynical smile. “Well, maybe it’s the Gotham City in me. We just have a bad history with freaks dressed like clowns.”


Couldn’t that description apply just as easily to Batman? Clark almost said it aloud, but then Lex appeared, pushing his way between them, all bounce and energy like he’d taken a serious overdose of caffeine...or perhaps a regular dose of something less legal.


“Boys!” He clapped a hand on Clark’s shoulder and whirled to do that same to Bruce. “Bruce Wayne meets Clark Kent! I love bringing people together! How are we?” He shook Bruce’s hand over-enthusiastically.


“Lex,” Bruce said laconically, calmly extricating his hand from Lex’s grip.


Immediately Lex grabbed Clark’s hand. “Lex, hi, hello, it’s a pleasure.”


Clark shook his hand, subtly drawing Lex closer to him. He drew in air through his nose and looked through Lex’s skin and bone to examine him within. Skin slightly clammy, heart beat irregular and a little too fast, pupils dilated and a scent on him that Clark recognised as cocaine.


Lex winced as he pulled his hand free. “Wow, that’s quite a grip you have there!” he bounced back quickly. “You should not pick a fight with this man!” He turned to Bruce. “So, we finally got you over to Metropolis!”


“Well, I thought I’d come and drink you dry,” Bruce drawled, his laid back way of speaking making Lex seem even more jumpy.


“Well, you’re welcome,” Lex gushed. “You should hop the harbour more often, though. I’d love to show you my labs, maybe we could partner on something. My R and D is up to all sorts of no good.” Suddenly his hyper manner was gone, his heart steadied and when Lex met Bruce’s eyes Clark glimpsed something much more calculating. He wondered how Bruce would respond to that offer, given their suspicions.


Bruce drew a breath to speak but was stopped by Mercy stepping forward.


“Mr Luthor, the governor,” she said quietly.


Lex clapped his hands together. “The governor, yes, of course.” He made an expansive gesture. “Please, enjoy the evening, gentlemen.” He fell into step beside Mercy as she led him away.


Clark turned back to Bruce. They said nothing more, but Bruce gave him a short nod as he turned away. Clark returned the nod and followed Lex, at a distance.


 


 


Diana gave her car keys to the valet and walked into the mansion. She was arriving later than she had planned, having underestimated how long it would take to drive to the Luthor estate. The first familiar face she saw as she entered was Clark Kent’s. It seemed unlikely he was on Lex Luthor’s guest list, so he must be here for the newspaper.


Clark saw her and smiled a greeting. Diana returned the smile, glad to see him. A woman photographer saw their silent exchange and asked Clark who Diana was, raising the camera as she spoke.


Clark reached out and gently pushed her camera down. “Diana Prince. She’s an antiquities dealer from Europe. No one you need to photograph.” He made his way toward her.


Lex was speaking into a microphone and most eyes were on him as the two of them came together.


Clark slid his arm around Diana’s waist, a brief hug of welcome. “It’s great to see you. I didn’t know you were back.”


“I flew in this morning,” she explained. She had needed the break, a chance to think things over and make some important decisions, but she had missed the friends she left behind more than she expected to.


“How was London?”


“It was a good trip,” she answered, distracted by Lex’s speech. He was telling the story of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, but his delivery was disjointed and rambling. Clearly, he hadn’t prepared the speech very well.


“He’s not very focussed,” she commented to Clark.


Clark answered very quietly, “He’s high. Not that anyone will call him on it. The privilege of wealth.”


She wondered if Bruce knew of this development. When she left he was still watching Lex closely and this was something he would want to know. Narcotics on top of an already unstable personality...that couldn’t be good.


“How is Lois?” she asked. She didn’t know Lois Lane but she had read about the incident in Nairomi.


Clark understood what she was really asking. “Lois is fine. It was traumatic and she’s dealing with a lot but Lois deals with this sort of thing by diving into work. She’s determined to get to the bottom of what happened.”


“And you?” she asked.


Clark shook his head. “We’ve got a lot to catch up on. I’d love to buy you lunch and talk about it. Tomorrow?”


He didn’t want to discuss it where they would be overheard, Diana understood. “Lunch sounds lovely, but I’ve only just got back. I have to meet the museum director tomorrow. Another day?”


“Sure. Call me?” Clark frowned distractedly.


Lex concluded his odd speech. So abrupt was his conclusion that he was walking away from the podium before the audience realised he was done and started to applaud. He didn’t seem to notice.


“What is it?” Diana asked Clark. She didn’t think Lex’s speech had put that look on his face.


“A news broadcast. I have to go.” Clark’s smile held a cynicism she had never seen in him before. “Mexico is in North America, right?” he asked. She saw him begin to loosen his tie as he walked out into the night.


Diana watched him go, nonplussed by his final question. She had no idea what he meant but she understood that something was wrong. She wished she hadn’t turned down his lunch invitation.


After a moment, she headed into the main gathering. She had been living in Gotham for a year and had become a regular attendee at society functions. Her striking beauty made her memorable, so she found many people who stopped her to exchange greetings and small talk. She put Clark out of her mind and concentrated on being her professional self. Meeting people at events like this one was essential to her business. Diana was not wealthy in her own right, but she needed only two or three large commissions in a year to maintain her lifestyle. She made her living by locating and acquiring art and antiques, usually pieces difficult to find. It was work that allowed her to travel and to make contacts in both the legitimate and illegitimate trade. She was good at tracking down stolen art, which could be lucrative. She could have made a fortune as a thief, and occasionally a client would assume she was open to that kind of deal, but Diana kept her work strictly legal.


She caught sight of Bruce through the crowd and headed his way, eager to see him again. But when she got closer, Diana saw that Bruce was with another woman. They were seated at a table, each with a glass of wine in hand. She was no one Diana recognised: the woman was surely no more than twenty two, very beautiful and dressed to impress. As Diana watched, Bruce leaned closer to the woman, whispering something into her ear. From another angle, it would have looked like a kiss, and the woman reacted as if it were; she smiled secretively, looking up at Bruce through long lashes. Bruce drew back and his fingers brushed her bare arm.


Diana stopped breathing.


The scene was entirely innocent, yet carefully calculated to seem otherwise, even to the woman. The depth of her feeling surprised her. She had no right to claim Bruce as her own but seeing him with another woman felt like a knife in her heart. She was frozen in place, unable to look away until Bruce raised his glass to his lips and, as he drank, his eyes turned toward Diana.


Only then could she wrench her eyes away. She turned, hoping the movement looked natural, and walked away. She through the crowd as quickly as she could without appearing to hurry, heading for the exit. She didn't expect Bruce to follow her; she wasn't certain he had even seen her there. But as she reached the large atrium she felt him beside her.


“Diana,” he said, “wait.”


She stopped. She turned around and met his look. She couldn’t find a single word to say.


“We can’t discuss it here,” Bruce said, keeping his voice low, “but will you let me explain before you judge me?”


“You don’t have to explain, Bruce.” Diana took refuge in dignity. She was an Amazon Princess: she could do dignity. Diana faced him with her back straight, her shoulders stiff, her tone dripping ice. “You don’t owe me anything.”


“That isn’t true, Diana.” He reached for her arm as if he intended to stop her leaving. He let his hand drop and glanced at the gathered reporters. “We can’t talk here,” he said again.


She understood, but she wasn’t sure she was ready to have this discussion. Reluctantly, she gave in. “Is there somewhere we can talk?” Her apartment was in Gotham and that was a long drive.


“I have an apartment in the city.”


“Alright.”


 


 


Bruce’s Metropolis apartment was new to Diana. It was spartan in a way that appealed to her: clean and simple lines, everything functional and in its place. On the surface it was not a place he lived, just somewhere to sleep occasionally. Then again, like the cabin in the lake, its simplicity could be deceiving. She found herself looking for signs of a concealed door.


Bruce wasted no time on hospitality. As soon as they were inside with the door closed, he asked her to sit.


Diana complied, taking a seat on the couch.


Bruce joined her there, sitting close, but not so close they were touching. “I want to explain something. I don’t want to seem patronising or anything like that. I just think it’s important I spell this out, even if you already understand it.”


“I’m listening,” Diana told him. She thought she knew what he was going to say. She was wrong.


“I don’t have any illusions about what I do, Diana. I’m not like you, or Clark Kent and I don’t mean that you both have...powers, and I don’t. What happens if the world finds out that you are Wonder Woman? Or that he is Superman? What’s the worst that could happen?”


Bruce was so serious, Diana gave the question a lot of thought before she answered. “For me, I suppose the worst is the publicity. I’ve worked hard to stay hidden, and most people I fought beside are gone now. For Clark, it could be much more difficult. He has a lover, family, friends.”


“It would be hard,” Bruce agreed. “There would be consequences, but you would still be able to live your lives. Different, maybe not what you want, but you would adapt. Batman is a criminal vigilante. If my mask comes off, I will go to jail. Most likely, I’ll die there. Probably very badly.”


Diana felt herself turn pale. To hear Bruce talk so calmly about his own murder, it frightened her. She wanted to offer comfort or denial, but he would accept neither.


“I have heard,” she began hesitantly, “that when a man of great wealth commits a crime, justice can be bought.”


“When you’re talking about white collar crime, that’s true enough. Or the type of violent crime a man can pretend was heat of the moment - the right lawyer can persuade a jury. But not a twenty-year crusade. Not with the kind of money I’ve spent on it. Diana, I have no regrets. This is the reality I chose when I started this.”


Diana remained silent, waiting for him to continue.


“The person everyone thinks Bruce Wayne is, that’s the mask that keeps me safe. He’s a jerk. He pretends to run a company, drinks too much, and treats women like crap. No one would believe he’s Batman. It's ridiculous.”


Diana nodded. “I understand that you are not the person you pretend to be, Bruce. And I don’t have any right to be upset about seeing you with someone else. I...I don't know...”


“You said that before, about not having the right. It’s not true, Diana.” Bruce smiled, a slow genuine smile. “There are days I can’t figure out whether we’re just friends or what we are. But I know what I want.” His hand slid over hers, warm, the skin rough. “Please believe that nothing was going to happen between me and that girl. I haven’t been with anyone else since the night I met you. You’re worth waiting for, Diana.”


Diana’s breath caught in her throat. His words were true; she could always hear a lie. She sensed a small thread of deception, perhaps he wanted her to read more into the statement than he had actually said, but it was no lie. That alone meant a great deal. It would be massively unfair to ask him for more time, or to equivocate any longer, even though Diana was sure he would wait if she asked. And, really, was it so difficult to make a decision?


“I needed some time away,” she began, trying to choose her words carefully, “because I had to have the distance to decide what I’m willing to give up.”


“Give up? I wouldn’t ask - ”


“I know that, Bruce. But you just explained it yourself. Bruce Wayne lives his life in the news for a reason. If we become a couple, we will be seen together, photographed together. You remember how much trouble we went to just to acquire an old photograph of me?”


Bruce nodded. “You’re right. If we’re together in public, those photos won’t go away. I didn’t think about it.”


“I think the risk of anyone finding more old photos is small and very few people remember Wonder Woman. If I could just go on being normal, human Diana it wouldn’t matter. But you and Clark have shown me that I can’t do that. I need to find Wonder Woman again. And that, too, has consequences.”


Bruce looked grave. He nodded slowly. “I understand.” He withdrew his hands from hers. He thought her words were a rejection.


“I’m not finished, Bruce,” Diana said softly.


“Sorry. Please, continue.”


“I don’t know if things can work out between us. I want to try, Bruce, and I’m sorry I made this difficult, but there’s something you need to understand about me, first.” She leaned forward to meet his eyes.


He slid closer to her on the couch. He raised one hand to cup her cheek. “Whatever it is, it won’t change how I feel.”


“I’m an Amazon. It means more than you think. You’re a man raised in a world that gives you a...a certain expectation of how a relationship is supposed to go. That’s not my world, or my culture. I can’t be that kind of woman.”


Bruce shook his head impatiently. “What the hell would I do with that kind of woman? Diana, you’ve seen the way I live.”


“I just need to be clear from the start. I’m not presuming anything about what you want or where this is going, but - ”


His finger touched her lips, silencing her. “You can’t, or won’t, tie yourself down. I already know that, Diana. I want you in my life. Tonight, tomorrow and for as long as we want.” He leaned in to kiss her. This time it was slow, his hands caressing her shoulders and her back.


Diana parted her lips beneath his and closed her eyes. She reached for him blindly, her hand encountering the warm silk of his shirt. She felt the contours of his muscled chest through the silk and slid her fingers between the buttons to touch his skin. The taste of alcohol was still on his breath, reminding her of the other woman. She drew back, gently: a pause, not a rejection.


He said nothing, but the question was in his eyes.


“Not here,” she whispered.


“Your place? Or we can go to the cabin. Alfred won’t be there tonight.”


She didn’t mind Alfred being around, but she had no need to say so. “The cabin,” she agreed.


 


 


It felt good to help people.


Clark wouldn’t have known about the fire in Juarez if Lex’s catering staff were not mostly Hispanic. A television in the kitchen was tuned to a Spanish-language channel. Clark learned the language during his years of travelling; he spoke it only just well enough to get by but he could understand when he heard it as easily as he understood English. So he caught the essentials of the breaking news report as it happened: a fire in a factory had spread to a nearby apartment building. Firefighters were on the scene but they had no way to reach the upper floors and there were people trapped. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it was Dia de Muertos, and late enough that most of the adults were celebrating in the street while the youngest children slept inside.


He hated that the second thought that raced through his head, after figuring how quickly he could get there, was Senator Finch’s injunction. But she hadn’t limited him to the USA; she specified North America. Possibly she’d been covering her ass in case something happened in Alaska, but the words stood. He was free to act within the letter, if not the spirit, of the committee’s injunction.


By the time Superman appeared in the sky above the blazing buildings, it was clear the fire was hot enough to prevent the firefighters helping those trapped. The hoses were running, but the water barely contained the flames. He scanned the scene quickly, his alien vision cutting through flame and brick to the people within. Three children trapped in one room. Another at a window, calling to the crowd below for help they could not give. One more, sensibly wedged beneath the stairs, temporarily safe from flame but vulnerable to smoke. Five children. Superman dived in through the flames.


Word of his presence spread swiftly through the crowd, and with it, hope. The little girl at the window was panicking but she was actually safest of the five, so he went to her last. Her terrified scream dissolved into tears as he lifted her in his arms and held her close while he checked for signs of injury and found none. He heard a woman’s voice rise above the others, crying for her baby. Superman floated down to the gathered crowd, easily locating the woman who had cried out, and laid the little girl in her mother’s arms.


“She is well,” he told her in his imperfect Spanish. “She’s just exhausted.”


Superman felt a hand tug his cape, and then another. He heard murmurs all around him, voices whispering the same word, over and over: “Salvador.” Saviour. All around him, people in colourful skull-masks gathered, reaching out to him, to touch his flowing cape, his shoulders.


He had forgotten the television cameras that had drawn him to the blaze, or he would have been more conscious of what it looked like. He would have stopped it. But after Finch’s judgemental eyes, after the lies and Bruce’s bruising words, it felt good to help. To know that not everyone saw him as they did. It felt good to be himself again.


When Clark reached Lois’s apartment he expected to find her in bed asleep. Instead she was curled up on the couch with his laptop open on her knees, the robe slipping from her shoulders.


“Trouble sleeping?” he asked. He sat on the arm of the couch so her back rested against his thigh while he peered over her shoulder. She was reading his Batman story.


“I saw you on the news. Wanted to wait up.” Lois tried to look up at him, but the angle was all wrong.


Clark slid down from the couch to his knees so he could kiss her. “That’s not exactly bedtime reading.”


“It’s good.” Lois read aloud: “‘Alec Yakovlev’s murder in prison has prevented a court of law examining the evidence but there seems little doubt he was guilty of heinous crimes. His wife and children, however, are the innocents now being punished by the Batman’s reckless disregard for human rights.’ That’s got real punch.” Lois closed the laptop and put it on the floor. “It would work better as two articles: strip the first one down to the facts of the story and pour all that passion and outrage into an opinion column alongside it. But it’s good.”


Clark’s heart sank. He had known Lois long enough to know that good always came with an implied but. “Not good enough?” he asked wryly.


She rolled onto her stomach, looking at him over the arm of the couch. “Perry will say it’s not Daily Planet material. It’s Gotham news, and Gotham is only interesting when the news is weird.” She reached out to touch his hair, brushing a wayward strand back from his forehead. Her blue eyes softened. “You know, if you keep pushing this Perry’s going to hand you a reference and tell you to go work for the Gotham Gazette.”


“There’s some appeal in that idea,” Clark admitted, though he wouldn’t willingly leave the Planet as long as Lois worked there.


“Do you really want to publish this, though?” Lois asked. “You’re doing everything but call him out.”


Clark thought he had the balance about right: enough restraint to let Bruce know the article wasn’t a declaration of war, while making his views on vigilante justice clear. That was, if Bruce even bothered to read it. But someone who knew that Clark had the power to back up his threat might read the article very differently, which was now one purpose of the article.


“It’s not an issue. Anyway, the point is to make us look like enemies.”


“Well, it sure does that.” Lois was still playing with his hair. “You did a good thing tonight, but - ”


Just like that, his good mood was gone. “But what?” he snapped defensively. “I didn’t break the rules.”


“If the fire was in Brazil, not Mexico, would you have still gone?”


“Yes!” Clark declared, frustrated. Then, “Maybe. I don't know.”


Criticising those who think they’re above the law is a little hypocritical, wouldn’t you say?


Damn Bruce Wayne and damn Senator Finch! He should have thrown Finch’s orders back in her face, forced her to do her worst. He had known it was a mistake and he regretted it as soon as he left Washington, but he couldn’t take it back. He couldn’t take it back unless something happened that was big enough to justify defiance, and it wasn’t in Clark to wish for that kind of disaster.


“I’m sorry,” Lois said softly. “You did a good thing. I’m glad you saved those children.” Her fingers caressed his cheek. “Do you want to talk about it?”


“No. Not tonight, anyway.” Clark made an effort to shake off his anger; Lois didn't deserve it. Of all people, she didn’t deserve it. None of this was her fault.


He moved the laptop to the safety of the table. “I don’t want to talk about Batman. Or Perry.” He moved to lie beside her on the couch, well aware that there wasn’t enough room.


Lois squealed as his body pressed her into the cushions. “Clark! That’s never going to work!”


“You think so?” He floated on air beside the couch, propping his head up on his crooked arm, as if he lay on a solid surface. With his other arm, he reached across to pull her closer.


“Well, if you’re going to cheat...”


Clark kissed her, slowly, his thoughts still partly occupied with his troubles. When she parted his lips with her tongue, he slid his hand to the small of her back and rolled her over so she lay on top of him.


For about three seconds, Lois was too busy kissing him to notice they were both lying on empty air. When she did notice, she squealed and clutched his arms.


Clark laughed softly, his bad mood finally lifting.


Neither of them was going to sleep that night.


 


 

Gotham City


It was familiar scene, but Alfred could not help feeling disappointed when he entered the cabin. A bottle of vintage wine, open but not finished and left uncorked. A woman’s dress on the floor. The unmistakable smells of sex. Master Bruce, barely awake, sprawled on the bed and the sound of the shower running.


“Coffee, Master Wayne?” He offered dryly as he removed his coat.


Bruce raised his head from the pillow. He saw Alfred and sat up, pulling the sheet up to cover himself before Alfred was forced to look away. “Morning, Alfred.”


Alfred found the cork and began to work it carefully into the neck of the bottle. “Will it be breakfast for two, sir?”


Bruce came toward him with the bedsheet wrapped around his waist. “Just coffee. I let Diana take the shower first because she’s in a hurry. We both slept a bit late.”


Diana? That was unexpected. Alfred had assumed someone from the previous night’s party... He caught himself, reoriented his thinking and placed the wine bottle back on the table. “I’ll make it the Italian blend, then. I recall Miss Prince prefers it.”


“Alfred, could you go through the intel from last night? I meant to do it myself but...” Bruce gestured toward the bed with a smile that Alfred hadn't seen for many years. A smile he was glad to see again.


“Of course, sir.” He headed into the kitchen to make the requested coffee. If Bruce were alone, he would have followed Alfred into the kitchen and continued the conversation. If the woman were one of his casual affairs, he would have rushed through the coffee and escaped, leaving Alfred to explain the ways of the world to the woman.


Instead, Alfred prepared a tray: the silver coffee service and fine china. Although Master Bruce had refused breakfast, he served croissants with the coffee and carried the tray to the dining table, hastily clearing away the remaining detritus of the night before. He returned to the kitchen to fix a more substantial breakfast for himself: if he was going to spend the morning in the Batcave he wanted to be well-fortified. It could be very cold down there.


He was finishing his first cup of tea when Diana appeared in the doorway. “I have to hurry but I can't go without thanking you for breakfast. It was lovely. I’ll see you later?”


“Most welcome, Miss Prince,” he answered.


She offered a dazzling smile, and was gone. An instant later he heard her car leaving.


By the time Bruce was showered, shaved and dressed, Alfred had the cabin tidy: breakfast things cleared, bed stripped, wine back in the cellar.


Bruce came into the kitchen as Alfred was giving the silver coffee pot a final polish. He slumped back against the kitchen worktop. “What, no lecture?”


Alfred set the coffee pot on its shelf. “Lecture, Master Bruce?” he said with mock-innocence.


“Yeah, this is the part where you complain about me emptying my own wine cellar, or my debauchery. Come on, give me your best shot.”


Alfred smiled to see him happy. It was a long time since he had seen the boy he raised in the cynical and embittered man he had become.


“No lecture, sir,” he said. “Miss Prince is good for you.” Then, unable to resist, he pointed a finger at Bruce’s chest and said sternly, “Don't mess it up.”


Bruce laughed.


 


 

Metropolis


There were four alien vessels, that they knew of, on Earth during the invasion. Two were Zod’s ships: the first of them destroyed Metropolis before literally disappearing, apparently into a black hole above the city. The second, Superman destroyed over the Indian Ocean. What was left of that ship was a huge hunk of dead metal, a new island in the sea. The third vessel was the one that brought Superman to Earth. Little more than a pod, yet it was the one that somehow created that black hole, and like the first, was now gone forever.


And here, at last, was the fourth. Buried beneath the ice for thousands of years, discovered by a US scientific team studying the glacier, then stolen from the US military by Superman, who flew it to the one place on Earth the military couldn’t easily follow: Antarctica. Where it was found and commandeered by Zod, who flew it to Metropolis and crashed it into the harbour. Superman killed Zod, but did not reclaim the crashed ship.


Instead, the military took custody of the vessel. Scientists who examined it determined the vessel was still partially functional, but were unable to operate the technology. Convinced it was too dangerous to move the ship until they better understood the technology, they came up with an idea as practical as it was preposterous: they built their research facility around the vessel. In Metropolis harbour.


It was insane, and brilliant. Lex loved it.


The vessel was partially submerged, but a platform had been constructed just above the high water line which allowed him to walk right up to the hull. The atmosphere in the hangar felt strange, the air a little damp with a metallic scent. Lex breathed it in, filling his lungs. He reached out and laid his palm on the hull. It didn’t feel like metal. Smooth, with hints of rippling just beneath the surface, and warm to the touch. Ceramic, maybe? Something along those lines.


“It’s beautiful,” he said aloud.


There was no response. His words seemed to fill the empty air around the vessel. He was completely alone. Good.


The MPs guarding this facility had become somewhat lax. Oh, they still controlled access, and Lex could not have come this far without authorisation, but once inside there were few men in sight. They relied on electronic security, and electronic security could be hacked.


Case in point: Lex took the modified cell phone from his pocket and made a call. “I’m in position,” he said when Mercy answered. “Activate.”


“Program running,” she answered.


Lex ended the call and pocketed the phone. He checked his watch. He estimated it would take approximately thirty minutes for the AI program he had written to penetrate the security system guarding the ship. Once in, the first task for his AI was to create several new entries in the security database, ensuring that Knyazev and his team could access the facility.


Knyazev would replace the MPs guarding the ship with his own people. There would probably be some violence involved, but that wasn’t Lex’s concern. While Knyazev did his thing, Lex’s AI would be duplicating and then reconstructing the security records for the past few days. This reconstruction would erase Lex’s previous visit from the record and create a false record of him leaving today. The operation would ensure that Lex could come and go as he pleased. He would have all the time he needed with the alien vessel, and no one would know until it no longer mattered.


Lex smiled to himself and walked around the vessel to its entrance.


 


 


“Crime wave in Gotham!” Perry declared, making an expansive gesture to indicate a headline on a billboard. As he lowered his hand, he looked back at Clark, “In other breaking news, water is wet. Let it go, Kent.”


Clark didn’t flinch. He adjusted his glasses and met Perry’s eyes. “Perry, when you choose what to print, you’re making a statement about who matters. About what matters. The victims are poor immigrants, so this isn’t news. Is that it?”


“It’s not news, Kent, because this sort of crap happens every day.”


“And that’s a reason to ignore it? That ought to be a reason to scream it from the rooftops! The Daily Planet used to stand for something. Justice. Truth.”


Perry slammed his hand down on the table. “The Daily Planet used to have five million circulation. Now we’re lucky to get a quarter of that. For the last time, no one cares about Clark Kent taking on the Batman!”


“Poor people don’t buy papers,” Clark said.


“No one buys papers any more, period. And no one will buy your damned crusade. The American conscience died with Robert, Martin and John.”


Clark drew a breath to argue, and heard silence fall in the newsroom behind them. That was never good. He turned around as Jenny opened the door to Perry’s office.


“Perry, you should see this.”


Clark was through the door ahead of him. The TV screens, usually each tuned to a different channel - one for the stock market, CNN, Fox, a couple of European channels, and so on - had all been switched to the same one, and the sound turned up.


“...unconfirmed at present. Viewers are cautioned that this footage may be distressing.”


Video appeared on every screen, a passenger plane above the ocean. It was a 777, passenger capacity over five hundred. There was a roar of sound and the camera shook as if the person holding it had turned away and then it focussed back on the plane just as the tail end exploded. The plane rocked and started to nose-dive before a second explosion tore through the fuselage. Just before the footage cut out, Clark could clearly see little shapes, just specks on the screens, thrown clear of the disintegrating plane. People falling.


“Oh, my god.” Lois moved to Clark’s side. Automatically, he took her hand.


The anchor’s voice returned, “We now have confirmation of the flight number. The plane was flight UA2960 out of Cairo, bound for New York. We will have a number you can call for information available shortly. Stay tuned. Again, flight UA2960 out of Cairo has been lost over the Atlantic Ocean.”


Clark turned away and found himself looking into Lois’s stricken blue eyes.


“We have one hero who would rather terrorise innocents than help them, and another legally prevented from doing anything to help. What the hell is happening?” The words were angry, bitter.


“Clark,” Lois whispered. She reached out to touch his arm.


“Jenny, get me everything on that flight,” Perry ordered. “Was that a missile?”


“It looked like it,” Steve Lombard said. “Out of Cairo means terrorists. Daesh?”


“Follow that up,” Perry snapped. “And Kent.”


Clark turned to him, his expression still dark.


“Write your story from that angle, and I’ll print it. Lane, you have any sources in Cairo?”


“I’m on it,” she answered, but not in her usual crisp tone.


“A kitten out of a tree,” Clark muttered, and headed for the door.


He heard Lois behind him, but did not slow down. He needed to be outside, and the roof was closer. He made for the stairs.


Lois caught his arm. “Clark, please. What did that mean? A kitten in a tree.”


He kept moving up the stairs, but slower, so she could keep up. “It means Perry’s an asshole. He won’t print my story, but as soon as he saw a Superman angle... There could have been five hundred people on that plane, Lois. Five hundred. Families. Children.” He shoved open the door to the roof.


“Are you going to - ”


Clark stopped and turned to Lois. For a moment, he cupped her lovely face in his hand. “I’m sorry, Lois, I really am, but this time you can’t help. I need to go home.” He ran for the edge of the roof and took off into the sky.


 


 

Smallville


It was more than a year since the farmhouse in Smallville was destroyed by Zod’s people in their search for the Kryptonian Codex. Insurance didn’t completely cover the cost of rebuilding, but the government aid offered to everyone in Smallville in exchange for their silence about the battle filled the gap. A lot was lost forever: photographs, a china set passed through three generations, other things with sentimental value - those were irreplaceable. But the house was as good as new.


The farm had not been paying its way for years, and the destruction of the farmhouse was the final nail in that coffin. It could be made to pay again, with a lot of work and investment, but not by one elderly widow working alone. Instead, Martha found a job in a diner in town, earning enough to cover bills, if not much more. Clark wanted better for his mother, but she insisted that she loved the work, and she wouldn’t take help, even from her own son. If Clark wanted to move back in and be a farmer, she would have encouraged him gladly, but that life had never been his destiny.


Clark dropped out of the sky, unseen, a short distance out of town and walked the rest of the way down the familiar, dusty road. The walk should have calmed him, but it didn’t. Each step brought a number into his mind.


Five hundred and forty eight: the maximum number of people that could have been on that plane, including passengers and crew.


Forty thousand: the number of feet above sea level the plane was cruising when it was hit.


One hundred and eighty: the number of seconds it took a human body to fall that far without a parachute to slow the descent.


One hundred and twenty miles per hour: the speed a body would be travelling when it hit the water. At that speed, hitting the water would be like slamming into solid steel - every bone in the body shattered, internal organs ruptured, the body turned into chum, instantly.


Twelve: the number of seconds it would have taken Superman to reach the place where that plane was hit.


Five hundred and forty eight: the number of lives Superman could have saved, and hadn’t.


His eyes searched for Martha as he entered the diner. She was reaching up to a shelf, trying to reach a jar that was just a little too high. Clark smiled and plucked the jar from her outstretched fingers, kissed her quickly on her cheek and gave her the jar.


Martha smiled, so happy to see him she was glowing, and Clark instantly felt guilty for not visiting more often.


“Hello, Ma.” He returned her smile.


“Clark!” She hugged him, hard. “Go and sit down. I’ll finish this and bring you some breakfast.”


Clark obeyed, selecting a table near the window. There was a single television screen in the diner and it was showing the same news report he had seen at the Planet. There were no new details yet, but they showed the film of the explosions again. There wasn’t enough detail in the film for him to tell where it came from, but it was definitely a missile, likely ground-to-air, from the angle. There was a single impact, but two distinct explosions. Possibly the first set off a reaction that led to the second. Possibly something else happened.


Five hundred and forty eight passengers. Forty thousand feet. One hundred and eighty seconds. One hundred and twenty miles per hour.


A short stack and a milkshake appeared in front of him and Martha slid into the seat opposite. She glanced at the television. “I thought I’d see you there. What’s wrong, sweetie?”


“I couldn’t help them,” Clark said. He explained as simply as he could about the hearing, and the senator’s demand that he remain in North America. “If I go, my word means nothing. If I don’t...all I can think about is those people. It takes three minutes to fall forty thousand feet. I could have reached them in time.”


Martha reached across the table. “You can’t save everyone, Clark.”


“But I can try.”


“And this time you didn’t try.”


He nodded. “I know the chances are slim. Most of the people on board probably died in the explosion. But if I can save even one, shouldn’t I do it?”


As he spoke, he realised this was exactly what Bruce had warned him about. Superman had to be free to act. If rules or restrictions made him hesitate, even for a few seconds, those seconds cost people their lives.


“Why would they want to stop me?” He burst out, frustration rising to the surface again. “What gives them the right?”


“Clark, no one has that right unless you give it to them.”


He raised his head. “You’re right. It’s my fault.”


“That’s not what I said.”


“But that’s how it is. I agreed to this. I can take it back, but - ”


“Stop. What’s done is done.” She squeezed his hand. “I know this won’t help, but it would have taken more than three minutes for the TV station to get hold of that film. By the time you knew about it, it was almost certainly too late.”


Almost. Clark bowed his head unhappily.


“This isn’t about what you did or didn’t do. It’s about who you are. No one can tell you who you are, Clark. No one.”


“Who am I, Ma?”


“My son.”


He had known she would say that, and he smiled in response. But it didn’t help.


Almost meant there was a chance. One hundred and eighty seconds versus twelve. Maybe even ten. Almost meant that he might have reached them.


He would never know for sure.


 


 

Gotham City


The data Master Bruce retrieved from Luthor’s system during the benefit the night before was heavily encrypted. Either Luthor was up to something serious enough to merit this level of protection or he was wise to the Batman’s interest in his activities.


Feeling a little paranoid for doing it, Alfred isolated the Batcave’s computer network before he began the decryption. It would take longer, but If there was some kind of alert set, or Trojan horse triggered by an attempt to decrypt, isolating the network would defeat it.


While he waited for the data, Alfred opened the intelligence reports downloaded the previous night. The system Bruce had created was a complex network of spider programs that searched various targets - the World Wide Web, the so-called Dark Net, some government agencies, Gotham City Police and others - for anything related to a list of key words that changed depending on the Batman’s priorities. The system retrieved the information, indexed it and then served up a reading list in an order determined by some algorithm that Alfred would not even pretend to understand. Unfortunately, while its reading order worked for Bruce, who had speed-reading down to a fine art, it only served to irritate Alfred. But there was nothing else for it. He opened the first file and began to read.


Most of it was routine. The human trafficking ring Batman had been working against for several months appeared to be in its death throes. The last confrontation had ended violently, but arrests were made and no one died. Of the six men arrested, one was high enough in the organisation to make a deal with the DA, and his information could bring the whole operation down. If he survived to testify. Alfred marked that one for Bruce’s attention: the Batman would find a way to ensure the man lived long enough to be useful.


There was a memo from Senator Barrows’ office authorising Lex Luthor’s access to something indicated only as an ID number: Z-8302742-M. Alfred turned to the decryption program but it was still running, and he could not access any of that data until the decryption competed. He looked at the older database instead, entering the ID number and searching.


It seemed to take a long time.


Finally, a file flashed on screen. It was there for just a moment, not long enough for Alfred to read anything, then it was replaced with a banner: Access Denied.


Well, he knew how to deal with that. Alfred opened a communication program and entered the access code that would permit him to view classified material. Nothing happened.


Wait, nothing? Oh, of course, he had isolated the system. Could this wait?


Alfred wasn't certain. It could be nothing. LexCorp had a number of government contracts and nearly all of that work was entirely legitimate. On the other hand...


He called Bruce.


Alfred had no need to go through secretaries and assistants to reach the CEO of Wayne Enterprises, so he didn't know he was interrupting a meeting. Not that knowing would have stopped him.


He quickly explained what he had found, and was at first met only with silence.


“Master Wayne?”


“Sorry, just trying to remember that number. It’s familiar, not the actual number but the format. How long until the other job completes?”


“I can’t tell. Perhaps a few hours yet.”


Alfred heard someone trying to draw Bruce’s attention back to the meeting.


“One moment,” Bruce snapped impatiently, then, to Alfred, “What’s the size of the encrypted drive?”


Alfred turned to the program and read out the answer.


“Alright, that will take some time. I’ll head back as soon as this meeting is over, see if I can’t hurry it up for you.”


 


 

Washington DC


That plane. Flight UA2960.


The latest information from the airline put the number of dead at four hundred and eighty seven. More than half of them were American. It was, Senator Finch decided, as the make-up girl fussed with powders and brushes, a tragedy that could not have been avoided. That was the only line to take.


The world was becoming a more dangerous place every year, even before aliens invaded in search of Kal El, who turned out to be Superman. The terrorists were better organised, bolder and had access to more destructive weapons. Wars were sometimes shorter but brutal, leaving scars on population for generations to come.


What she could not say, not on television, was that they had no way to know whether Superman would have saved that plane. Accidents happened every day: he didn't show up to all of them. The plane was hit by a missile and exploded. How could they expect that even Superman could have done anything in time?


But then, there was the rocket launch from Canaveral back in the summer. There had been no warning that something might go wrong. No agency was more cautious than NASA, no organisation tested and retested so rigorously before finally giving a mission the Go. None of the tests or simulations even hinted at the problem. But that small weak spot in a fuel tank ruptured at exactly the wrong moment and for a heart-stopping three seconds America watched some of its finest heroes trapped in an exploding rocket on the ground. And then Superman was there, somehow, impossibly carrying the section that held the astronauts away from the conflagration. They lost both rocket and launchpad, but the lives were saved and to NASA, if not to the government accountants, that was a fair exchange.


Three seconds from disaster to celebration, because of Superman.


So, yes, there was a chance. But no matter what she wanted to tell herself, no matter what doubts kept her awake at night, Senator Finch must not imply by word or even tone that she believed there was any chance at all that Superman could have saved Flight A2960. The plane was shot down by terrorists. It exploded at forty thousand feet. It could not possibly have been saved.


She brushed the make-up girl aside and looked at herself in the mirror. She was ready.


Bright lights, hot studio, the awful scent on her skin as the thick make-up warmed under the lights. Music, welcoming applause. Smile, not too warmly, walk across the stage, each step even but quick. Shake hands with the host, smile, exchange platitudes so good to have you back on the show - happy to be here, Chris. Take a seat, face the camera that swings into view. On.


Do not, by word or tone of voice, doubt that the plane was lost, with or without Superman.


 


 

Gotham City


Bruce scrolled quickly through the data on the screen. He knew LexCorp had found the Kryptonian armour and was reverse-engineering the technology. That was predictable and in all honesty if the armour had fallen into his lap he would have had Wayne Enterprises doing the same thing. He also knew Lex had talked his way into USAMRIID and that was more worrying. He didn't know what Lex had done there. It might have been unrelated to the Kryptonian invasion but Bruce knew that Zod’s body had been taken to a secret USAMRIID facility. It was likely Lex’s scheme somehow involved Zod.


“Senator Barrows authorised Lex to access whatever this is.” Bruce frowned at the information. “Alfred, run a deep check on the Senator. I need to know if he’s in Lex’s pocket or if he’s doing this for reasons of his own.”


“That will take some time, Master Bruce,” Alfred responded, even as he began the search.


“I know. I'm still trying to identify this project code. It's military...why would the army give him special access to... Oh, hell.”


“Sir?”


Bruce drew back from the screen, his mind racing. The connections were obvious but he still couldn't see the whole picture. Z-8302742-M was the code for the research station built around the Kryptonian ship in Metropolis Harbour. Lex had Kryptonite. He had access to the facility that kept General Zod’s body. Now he had access to the crashed ship. But what was his endgame? How did this connect to his scheme to kill Batman and Superman?


He needed an expert in Kryptonian technology. There was only one person who might fit that bill.


Bruce reached for the secure phone and dialled Clark Kent’s cell phone.


He got voicemail. He swore, hung up, and dialled again. This time he left a message. “It’s Batman. Call me. This is urgent.”


Unwilling to wait, he turned off the phone’s voice modulator and called the Daily Planet. He got the switchboard and asked for Clark Kent.


“Who should I say is calling?” the operator asked robotically.


“Just tell him I’m a source,” Bruce answered. He waited.


“I'm sorry, Mr Kent is not answering. I can transfer you to his cell.”


“No, I already tried that. Can you put me through to Lois Lane?”


“One moment, please.”


One moment stretched into ten seconds before Bruce heard the click of the call being forwarded, and then a fresh ringtone. He turned the modulator back on: Batman needed to talk to her, not Bruce Wayne.


“Lois Lane,” she answered crisply. Through the phone Bruce could hear street sounds around her: cars, footsteps.


“Ms Lane, this is Batman. I need to reach Clark. Where is he?” He was gambling that she knew he and Superman were acquainted, and that she wouldn't ask too many questions.


Lois answered, “I don't know. The plane this morning...he was really angry. He said he was going home - ”


What plane? What was she talking about? Bruce called up a news site and got the story quickly. It was a distraction, so he dismissed it.


“When you see him, tell him that Lex Luthor is - ”


Lois screamed. Bruce heard the crash of her phone hitting the concrete, a scuffle, muffled words. Then the line went dead.


Adrenaline flooded him and he shot out of the chair. “Alfred, I’ll need the plane.”


Alfred went white. “But, sir, it's daylight.”


Bruce swore.


 


 

Smallville


Her shift should have been over ten minutes before, but Martha still had tasks to complete, and preferably before the evening rush began. She was distracted because of her son’s visit. He hadn't returned, or contacted her, and she was worried. He had been unhappy, but Martha knew her son well enough to see the anger building beneath his misery. She knew what his anger could do if unleashed. She thought she had helped, but oh, she wished he would call! She wanted to be sure.


She heaved up the heavy trash bag and manoeuvred it through the narrow door into the alley behind the diner. She opened the dumpster, trying to hold her breath as the stench assailed her, and hauled it in. When she turned to go back inside, a man blocked her way.


He was tall, broad-shouldered with dark, greasy hair and a lot of tattoos. Not someone who would easily blend in in Smallville. Fear chilled her, but Martha wasn’t easily intimidated.


“Can I help you?” she asked.


“Martha Kent?” he asked, the words heavily accented.


“Yes...”


A hand clapped over her mouth from behind her and she was pulled back against a man’s body. Her scream was muffled by the hand across her mouth and she fought against the arms that held her. Something covered her eyes and she tried to scream again.


She felt a sharp pain in her arm, then cold, then nothing.


 


 

The Arctic


It was winter and the Arctic was entering its long night. Everything was dull and grey. The low sun even stole the colour from Superman’s cape, so the bright scarlet was a mere hint of colour in the endless twilight.


This bleak, frozen landscape had become the place he went when he needed solitude. Here, no one would come. No one would see. He shared the ice with Arctic foxes, seals and an occasional polar bear. Never anything human. Here, he was undisturbed.


You are as much a child of Earth as of Krypton. You can embody the best of both worlds.


The symbol of the House of El means hope. That’s what you can bring them.


You’ve grown stronger here than I ever could have imagined. The only way to know how strong is to keep testing your limits.


You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They’ll race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal.


He was not to blame for the people who died on that plane. Ma was right about that, at least: in the time it would have taken for CNN to get that video on air, they were dead. He could not have helped, even if he left Metropolis the instant he knew.


You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be, Clark. Because whoever that man is, good character or bad, he’s gonna change the world.


All these changes that you’re going through, one day you’re going to think of them as a blessing. When that day comes, you’re going to have to make a choice. A choice of whether to stand proud in front of the human race or not.


He walked across jagged ice. He could feel the ridges and holes through his boots but barely felt the cold, though his breath turned to ice as it left him. Here, it was impossible to hide from truth, impossible to cling to comforting illusions or self-deception. This place had a way of forcing him to see clearly, and simply.


The truth about you is beautiful. We knew that one day, the whole world would see that.


The simple truth was this: Superman would never again hold back when someone needed his help. He could not save everyone. There would always be the cries he heard too late, the blows that fell too fast for him to reach. But never again would he fail to try. He had been wrong to let anyone tell him otherwise.


Finch and her committee could go to hell. Superman would not be shackled by their fear.


Fuelled by his growing rage, he took off, leaving a crater in the ice and a sonic boom in the air. He sped upward, too fast for any system to track, through the stratosphere, and higher still through the mesosphere until he reached the very outer layer of the planet’s atmosphere. Here he was outside the range of the satellites that monitored the Earth. He flew toward the equator, still some three hundred miles above the ground. He could survive up there for a long time, but it took effort, which was what he needed. To feel the strain in his body. To feel his lungs struggle to take in enough oxygen, his heart beat faster, his muscles burn. Slowly, his anger faded, not completely, but at least to the point where he was in control.


Only then did he fly downward, back to Earth. But he was not yet ready to go home. He flew, high enough that he could not be seen from the ground, across the continents.


Africa, with its wide Savannah and dense jungle.


North to Europe, ancient cities, wide rivers and open fields.


China, with its smog-filled cities and rocky desert.


South, across the ocean to Australia, lush coastline and harsher inland. He flew over Uluru, the massive red rock, and onward.


And it was there he heard the cry of warning and the groan of warping steel. Instantly, he changed direction, flying toward the sound. It came from one of Australia’s many mines. The steel headframe above the mineshaft was leaning dangerously. He could see men trapped in the cage, partway up the shaft.


Superman flew down and took hold of the headframe above the warped strut just as it began to topple. He pushed it back into place, steadying the cage, but that didn't do more than solve the immediate problem. The men below saw him and moved quickly to bring the cage to the surface. Superman held the headframe steady until every person was out of the cage.


When it seemed safe to release the frame, he flew down to examine the section that had warped. He could see no reason for the apparently sudden collapse, but it was the work of mere seconds to wrench the steel bar back into place, heat the end with his laser vision until it began to melt, then and weld it in place, creating a new, stable joint.


“Are there others below?” Superman called to the man who appeared to be in charge as he flew to the ground.


“Three crews.”


“It will hold long enough for you to evacuate, but the structure is weaker where I repaired it. It should be replaced before you reopen the mine. Is anyone hurt?”


He waited long enough to establish that no one was seriously injured then took flight once more.


 


 

Metropolis


Diana wrapped the silk scarf around her throat. There was a chill in the air; winter was on the way. She descended the steps from the Metropolis Museum and hesitated as she reached the bottom, pondering her next destination. She should call Clark and let him know she was free for lunch tomorrow.


Her Blackberry rang and she fished it out of her pocket. “Diana Prince speaking.”


“Are you in Metropolis?” It was Bruce’s voice, his tone urgent.


“Yes,” she answered instantly. “What’s wrong?”


“Lois Lane is in trouble and I can't reach him. I'm too far away. I need Wonder Woman.”


“Where?”


“I'm tracking her phone but I don't know if it's still with her. The corner of Jefferson Street, heading toward the centre of the city.”


“I'm on my way, but Lois doesn't know me. Find him.”


“I will.”


 


 

Gotham City


The Bat mask and gloves lay on the work table beside him, but otherwise Bruce was ready to go. He still waited, though, in part for darkness, but mostly because he still had not heard from Clark. Of all the times to disappear in a funk, why this day?


There was a way he could send a message that would reach Superman wherever he was, unless perhaps he’d gone to the dark side of the moon to sulk. (Could he do that? Bruce made a note to ask him someday. It would be useful to know the limits of Superman’s powers.) He could use a hypersonic frequency and tap into the worldwide satellite network to broadcast across the globe. The trouble with that solution was that he might only be able to do it once. Military authorities tended to take a dim view of their networks being hacked; they would find and plug the back doors Bruce was ready to exploit.


And so, he waited, tracking the GPS signal he hoped was Lois Lane, updating Wonder Woman with each change of direction.


“Batman, she's not here.” Wonder Woman's voice crackled over the comm. “They left her phone in a cab. The driver knows nothing.”


Damn it. He switched plans without missing a beat. “Try the LexCorp building. I don't know that he's behind this but it's the worst possibility.”


“Alright. Any word?”


“Not yet.” He cut the comm and shut down every screen. For this, he needed all his resources. He turned to his oldest friend. “Alfred, we’re going to use the satellite uplink. You take the south. The program will handle the hack but you need to watch for countermeasures. We need time to get the message through.


Alfred nodded curtly and moved into position at the console. “Ready.”


It was beautiful, really, watching the program he had been working on for years finally let loose. One by one the backdoors opened to Batman’s system: NASA, ESA, the Russian network, China, Australia, more. He pulled them together until he had a web that reached all around the planet.


The major weakness of broadcasting in this way was that the message could not be encrypted. It would not be audible to human ears, but anyone with a recording device would be able to adjust the frequency and find the words. He had to be careful what he said.


Batman broadcast: “Superman, I know you can hear this. Whatever you are doing, drop it. You are needed in Metropolis.” He put the message on repeat for sixty seconds, hoping for at least that long before the various agencies started kicking him out of their networks.


“When the broadcast stops,” He instructed Alfred, “shut the system down and reboot. That will stop them tracing the hack to us.” He pulled the Bat mask over his head and reached for the gloves.


“That will break my contact with you,” Alfred objected.


Bruce was already headed for the Batplane. “Only for as long as it takes to reboot. I'll stay on the line.”


“Good hunting, sir.”


Batman answered with a vicious smile.


 


 


It was not full dark, but the city lights were visible from a long distance as Superman sped over the ocean. As he came closer to the bay, he could pick out familiar details. He saw the searchlight with the bat in its centre, reflecting off the clouds.


He made for the light and saw the caped figure of Batman beneath it, watching the sky.


Superman streaked down and landed right in front of him, the impact of his boots throwing up a shower of broken concrete.


“You’re a hard man to find,” Batman said. He brushed concrete dust off his costume.


“What’s happened?” Superman demanded.


And then he heard Lois scream.


 


 

Metropolis


Lois had no idea how long she had been tied up in the trunk of this car. She had a blindfold over her eyes, cable ties around her wrists and ankles and the space was so tiny she could barely move.


She had been on the phone when they - whoever they were - grabbed her, so at least one person knew she was in trouble. She had to believe Batman would get word to Clark. It wasn't in her nature to lie there and wait for rescue, but as it turned out, there was very little else she could do. When the trunk first slammed closed on her, she tried kicking at the sides, hoping someone would hear. But the movement made the ties around her ankles dig painfully into her skin. She did her best to ignore the pain, but after what felt like an hour of trying she had to give up.


By then the car had apparently reached its destination because there was no more engine noise, but Lois had no idea where she was, and no one came to get her out of the trunk.


She was left there, alone, for a long time. She could not free her hands or feet. She could not remove the blindfold over her eyes. She smelled gasoline and oil. She could hear, distantly, the sounds of the city: cars,construction...wait, construction - big construction - told her something about where she was. If she was still in Metropolis, there were two major construction sites in the city. One was the new Triad tower, the half-completed replacement for one of the buildings destroyed in the invasion. The other was further out, a new building owned by some technology company. She didn't know what was in the vicinity of the second, but the Triad was next to the new LexCorp tower, not far from Heroes’ Park and the harbour.


But while it was tempting to connect her predicament with Lex Luthor, it was a huge assumption. She couldn't tell where she was, not for sure. Even if she was right, did knowing that help her at all?


She heard someone approaching, a heavy tread, but just one set of feet. Whoever it was opened the trunk and she felt hands on her roughly hauling her out.


“Let go of me! What the hell is this?”


She was dumped unceremoniously on the cold, hard ground. With her ankles and wrists tied, she could not stand, let alone run. She raised her hands to her face, trying to claw the blindfold off. The cable tie ripped into her already raw flesh and she let out an involuntary moan. Her captor gripped her upper arm and pulled her upright, so hard she feared he might dislocate her shoulder.


She couldn't stand on her own until he snapped the ties around her ankles. Even then, she felt horribly unsteady but when he pulled her forward she managed to stay with him without falling.


“Who are you?” Lois demanded. “What do you want?”


“Shut up.” The voice was baritone, the words clipped, not enough to discern an accent. The barrel of a gun pressed into her side. Lois decided it was best to be quiet.


They walked for what felt like a long time but was probably no more than three hundred metres. She was shoved against a hard, smooth wall and heard a familiar swish of electrical doors closing. There was a moment in which all she heard was her captor’s harsh breathing. Then they began to move upward. She was in an elevator.


The elevator continued upward for a very long time, telling her she was headed to the top of a very tall building. Again, she thought of LexCorp tower. If Lex was behind this, again, she was almost more afraid of what Clark would do than she was afraid for herself. He was so angry, if Lex turned himself into a target there was no predicting what might happen.


Finally, she heard the elevator door open and a cold wind swirled around her calves. Her captor pushed her a few steps forward, tugged at her wrists and cut the plastic away.


She felt the gun against her spine.


“Keep walking,” he ordered.


Lois obeyed, walking blindly forward. The ground seemed to sway under her feet and she stumbled. Flailing to regain her balance, she pulled the blindfold off. The wind caught the fabric and it fluttered away. She blinked to focus her eyes.


It was almost fully dark. That was the first thing she registered, that evidence of how long she had lain in the trunk. The second was where she was: a helipad, high, so high above Metropolis. She could see clear across the bay and her heart pounded harder when she recognised the bat signal in the sky. She wasn't alone.


Then, she saw Lex, waiting for her. He wore a long, grey duster over his usual white.


He smiled, for all the world as if she were an old friend who had dropped in to visit, and opened his hands in a welcoming gesture. “Lois Lane! Come see the view.”


He came toward her and before she could back away, had curled his arm around her shoulder. Lois tried to shake him off and he tightened his grip, surprisingly strong. The ground moved beneath her feet and her head swirled with vertigo as he led her toward the edge of the helipad.


The newly completed LexCorp Tower was the tallest building in Metropolis. Lois fixed her eyes on the signal across the bay. Had he found Clark? Oh, please let him have found Clark!


Lex squeezed her shoulder, pulling her even more tightly against his body. She smelled his skin. “The secret to building this high is in the material. Light metals, which sway a bit in the wind.” He swayed from side to side as he spoke, moving her with him. Lois wanted to throw up.


“Now, you know something about LexCorp metals, don't you, Miss Lane?”


The connection clicked in her mind. He had hacked her work computer. Maybe the whole Daily Planet network. He had found the data Clark gave her about the armour and knew she had made the connection to the Nairomi incident. And if he had found that, he knew that harming her would not kill the story. She had an edge.


Lois tore herself out of his hold and faced him. “I can prove what you’ve done. The stolen technology, the ambush in the desert. All of it.”


Lex laughed, and it sent a chill through her. “Oh, you're feisty. Unfortunately, that will blow away. Like...sand in the desert.”


“You’re psychotic,” she said, with all the contempt she could muster.


It didn’t faze him. “That is a three-syllable word for any thought too big for little minds.” he declared. He whirled away from her, raising his arms as if he were dancing.


Clark said he was a psychopath, she reminded herself. He is capable of anything. Be careful.


Lex turned back to her abruptly, one finger raised. “Next category: circles!” He said, and it sounded so ridiculously random that Lois couldn’t respond.


“Round and round and round they go to find Superman,” he rambled, walking around her as if to illustrate his words. “No, wrong category, boy. Triangles. Yes, Euclid’s triangle and equalities and the shortest distance between any two points is a straight path.”


Was he high?


Lex was suddenly at her back, leaning close, his chin almost resting on her shoulder. All the merriment vanished from his voice. He said, in a tone suddenly deadly, “And I believe the straightest path to Superman is a pretty little road, called Lois Lane.”


He shoved her, hard. Unable to stop, she stumbled forward and fell. Into empty air. She screamed.


 


 


“Batman, Wonder Woman,” Alfred’s voice came across the comm. “There’s something very odd happening at the research facility in the harbour.”


“This isn't a good time,” Wonder Woman answered, keeping her voice low so Lex Luthor would not hear. He had been waiting on the helipad for nearly ten minutes, pacing. Now the elevator she was hiding beside was moving; she figured one way or the other she would need to move very fast, very soon.


“Explain, Alfred,” Batman said.


“Huge fluctuations in the power grid. It’s as if that one building is suddenly drawing in all the power it can.”


“He’s coming. We’ll check it out. Keep us updated.”


Wonder Woman watched from the shadows beside the elevator as its doors opened and Lois Lane emerged.


“You were right,” she sent across the comm to Batman. “They are both here.” She prepared to move, one hand hovering over her lasso.


“...And I believe the straightest path to Superman is a pretty little road, called Lois Lane.” With no more warning than that, Lex shoved Lois hard with both hands.


She took an involuntary step and plunged off the helipad. Wonder Woman heard her scream as she fell.


She dived after Lois, flinging out the lasso as she fell, making her body an arrow, seeing Lois below her, getting closer, catching the other woman just as the lasso arrested her fall and they swung together over the street far below.


“Hold on!” Wonder Woman gasped, holding Lois against her as her eyes searched for a way down. The lasso stretched to its limit and the momentum swung them back toward the building. The only way out seemed to be through. She would have to go through the glass and into the tower. No way to protect Lois from that.


And then Superman was there, effortlessly lifting them both, slowing their momentum as Wonder Woman pulled the lasso free from its anchor above. He carried them to the ground. Wonder Woman released Lois as the woman collapsed into Superman’s arms.


She saw something of what made Lois Lane his match when, a moment later, she straightened, smoothed her skirt and pulled away from him.


“He said he wanted you,” she told Superman.


“Good. Because I'm ready to talk to him.” Superman looked at Wonder Woman. “Thank you. I was almost too late.”


Wonder Woman nodded an acknowledgement. “You were right on time, Kal. But I’m glad I was here to help.”


“Keep her safe. I'm going to deal with Luthor.”


What else could she do? “She's safe with me,” Wonder Woman promised as Superman rose into the sky.


Lois rounded on her. “Who the hell are you?”


 


 


There was something very wrong with this picture. Lex Luthor knew how easily Superman could kill him, or worse. He should have been terrified. He should have been running.


He was sitting on the helipad, waiting, winding an oven timer in his hands when Superman reached his height. Superman didn’t land. He didn’t trust himself to get that close, not yet. Instead he hovered in the air. He recognised the ring on Lex’s finger. Did he really believe a chunk of kryptonite would protect him now?


Lex looked up as Superman rose into view, and smiled as he scrambled to his feet. “Boy, do we have problems up here!” he declared. He sounded happy about it. “The problem of evil in the world. The problem of absolute virtue.”


Superman had no interest in Lex’s psychotic ramblings. “I’ll take you in without breaking you,” he said angrily, “which is more than you deserve.”


“The problem of you, above all,” Lex went on as if he hadn’t heard. “Ah, because that’s what God is, isn’t it? What we call God depends on our tribe, because God is tribal. He takes sides.” The last word was snarled.


Superman moved closer, slowly, not threatening. Lex had no place to hide up here.


“No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from Daddy’s fists and abominations,” Lex went on. “I figured out way back that if God is all powerful, he cannot be all-good. And neither can you be.” He made a sharp gesture, warning Superman to back off.


Superman remained where he was. He was listening now, aware that for the first time he was seeing the real Lex Luthor. A man as much hidden behind a mask as he and Batman were. There was something important here. Something he needed to understand.


Lex pointed to the city below them. “They need to see the fraud you are. The blood on your hands.”


“What have you done?” Superman demanded. He landed on the helipad and stalked toward Lex.


“And tonight, they will!” Lex crowed. “Yes. Because you, my friend, have a date. Across the bay.”


Almost involuntarily Superman turned to look. The spotlight still shone into the sky, Batman waiting beneath its signal. But not, he realised, for the reason Lex thought. Bruce had been right about Luthor’s endgame. Lex had already lost; he just didn’t know it.


“You will fly to him,” Lex demanded, his voice rising to a shout, “and you will battle him to the death. Black and blue. Fight night. The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world. God versus man. Day versus night. Son of Krypton versus Bat of Gotham!”


He was deranged. Superman shook his head. “You really think I’ll fight him. For you?”


“Yes, I do! I think you will fight. Fight! Fight! For that special lady in your life.”


Superman watched him grimly. “Lois is safe on the ground. How about you?” It would be a real pleasure to toss this man off the building...


Lex raised a hand, reaching into his coat with the other. “Close, but I am not talking about her. Oh, no. Every boy’s special lady is his mother!” With a triumphant flourish, Lex produced a handful of photographs, fanned out like playing cards. He waited just long enough for Superman to recognise Martha Kent before he threw them at Superman’s chest.


The realisation drained him of strength faster than Kryptonite ever could.


Superman dropped to his knees and reached for one of the photographs. His mother’s face, her hair tangled, a cloth covering her mouth. She looked frightened. He looked at them all, fifteen photographs in all, all much the same. There was no clue in any of the images to indicate where she was, or who had her. She was frightened. She should never have to be frightened.


Something inside him snapped and when he looked up he knew his eyes were filled with fire. He barely had enough control to hold it inside.


WHERE IS SHE?” Superman roared, his voice barely human.


Lex leapt back, holding up both hands. His heart was beating faster, sweat beading on his forehead. Finally, he was afraid. But he laughed. He laughed and sang delightedly, “I do not know! I would not let them tell me!”


He danced toward Superman. “Now, if you kill me, Martha dies,” Lex giggled. “And if you fly away, Martha dies.” He bent and spoke more evenly, “But if you kill the Bat, she lives.”


Kill the Bat. Kill the Bat. Murder Bruce Wayne, to save his mother’s life.


Superman bowed his head, struggling to control himself. You think you can threaten my mother! Slowly, the fire left his eyes. He would not kill. Not Lex, and certainly not Batman.


He heard the blades of the helicopter's approach just before the wind it generated scattered the photographs in all directions. He had barely been aware of its approach.


Lex moved toward the helicopter. “Cameras are waiting at your ship for the world to see the holes in the holy! Yes the almighty comes clean about how dirty he is when it counts. To save Martha, bring me the head of the Bat.”


He threw the oven timer at Superman. “Mother of God, will you look at the time! When you came here, you had an hour.” Lex climbed up to the helicopter’s door and hissed vindictively, “Now it's less.”


He climbed inside as it rose into the air, leaving Superman on his knees on the helipad. On his knees, but not as helpless as he seemed.


Superman opened his senses to the city. Martha had to be close by; nothing else made sense. She knew what he could do better than anyone. She knew he would be searching for her. The sounds of the city clamoured in his head and he tried, desperately, to sort through what he heard, to isolate the voices, to find his mother. He didn’t need words, he would know the sound of her breathing. She had to be here. She had to be.


But Metropolis was not Smallville. There were too many people, too many voices clamouring for attention. Perhaps he could have found her that way, but not in time.


He rose to his feet and saw the Bat-signal across the bay. Kill the Bat.


 


 


“You called him Kal,” Lois pressed. “Are you from Krypton?”


Wonder Woman waved the question away. “No. Please, I’m trying to listen.” Lex was insane, that much was clear. How he imagined he would get away with this scheme, she didn’t know. If Superman didn’t take him down, Batman would.


Then she heard, Bring me the head of the Bat.


“Batman,” she said urgently. “He’s coming to you. Help him! I’ll take the ship.”


“Understood,” Batman responded instantly, to her relief.


Wonder Woman turned to Lois. She had promised to keep her safe. She couldn’t leave her here alone.


“You are going to tell me what’s going on,” Lois insisted.


Wonder Woman nodded. The timing was terrible, but she understood how Lois must feel. This was a lot to take in. “We have to get to the harbour, quickly,” she began.


Lois stepped into the street and hailed a passing cab. “Well? What are you waiting for?”


Wonder Woman stifled a laugh and climbed into the cab.


Lois gave their destination to the driver: “The harbour, as fast as you can.” She turned to Wonder Woman as the cab pulled away from the sidewalk. “Talk fast, lady. Who are you, what are you and how do you know Cl...him?”


“I’m his friend,” Wonder Woman said. “We’ve known each other for about six months. I called him Kal because, well, origins and bloodlines are important to my culture and it’s how I think of him. I’m not one of his people but we have some similar abilities.”


“You have a name?”


“Wonder Woman,” she answered.


“Right.” Lois took in the costume with a glance that spoke volumes.


More quietly, she added, “Diana. But that’s between us.”


“And you’re with Batman?”


Wonder Woman hesitated, but there was no time for complex explanations. “Tonight, we are in contact, yes. Listen, Lois. Lex Luthor has been planning this for a long time. You are not the only one in danger. He has Kal’s mother.”


“Why?” Lois asked, her cheeks suddenly pale.


“It would take too long. Batman and Kal will find her. Lex has done something to the Kryptonian ship in the harbour. It’s my job to figure out what. And stop him.”


“Our job,” Lois insisted.


Wonder Woman smiled. “Ours,” she agreed.


 


 

Gotham City


Help him wasn’t much of a heads-up, Batman thought. He was lucky Superman wasn’t tempted to take the short-cut Lex had offered him. If someone had given Bruce Wayne a chance to save his parents’ lives, he would have taken it without a thought of whether it was right or wrong. And this might still end with Superman making that choice.


He reached up and killed the Bat-signal. “If this is his endgame, Lex is watching,” Batman said. “We have to fight.”


“No!”


“Listen, you idiot, he has to think you’re going along with this. Now hit me, and take this fight where he can’t watch!”


Superman was not slow. Before the last word was out of his mouth, Batman was airborne. All the breath went out of him. He barely had time to realise what was happening before he was crashing through glass, and then through brick. He felt the impact in every bone when he hit the floor.


Batman got to his feet, more than a little dazed, but unbroken. They were inside one of the abandoned warehouses. Good enough.


“I need a location on Anatoli Knyazev,” Batman instructed. “And Mercy Graves.” He didn’t wait for Alfred to respond, but turned to Superman. “Lex doesn’t trust many. One of them has Martha. The locations should tell us which.”


“We can go to both if - ”


Batman interrupted him. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but there are more important things. You have to go to Metropolis Harbour - ”


“I’m not going anywhere until I know my mother is safe!”


“I promise you, I will find her and keep her safe. I swear it, Clark. But you have to be at the harbour. Whatever Lex has done to that ship could kill a lot of people, and you are the only one who understands that technology.”


“Mercy Graves is at LexCorp tower,” Alfred reported. “Knyazev is in the old chemical plant on Cedar Road.”


“Where is that?” Superman demanded.


Then Alfred cut in, the alarm clear in his voice. “Batman, the ship is - Oh, god!”


“Report!” Batman barked.


“Sir, Metropolis just went dark. The whole city.”


Superman stared at him for a moment the indecision clear on his face. “Promise me,” he said.


“I promise,” Batman answered, and in a sudden wind, Superman was gone. “Wonder Woman?” he said quickly, already running for the Batplane.


“We are okay,” Diana’s voice came back to him.


Batman felt the relief wash over him as he reached the plane. He leapt aboard. “He’s on his way to you,” he told Wonder Woman. “I’ll join you soon.”


First, he had business to settle with Anatoli Knyazev.


 


 

Metropolis


“Looks like this is as far as we can go,” the cab driver announced, somewhat unnecessarily. The traffic was gridlocked with cars attempting to move in the opposite direction and, a short distance ahead, flashing blue lights indicated a hastily-erected police roadblock.


“We’re close.” Lois indicated the window with a nod of her head and Wonder Woman, looking past her, saw the huge statue at the heart of Heroes’ Park.


“Let’s go,” she agreed.


Lois paid the driver and followed Wonder Woman without waiting for change. They hurried across the park toward the research and containment facility that held the Kryptonian scout ship.


They were halfway across the park when every light in Metropolis went out. For an instant, the city was plunged into darkness and silence, not even vehicle headlights shining, as engines stalled and horns fell silent.


Wonder Woman reached for Lois’s hand as her eyes swiftly adjusted and kept moving. Slowly, light and sound returned: vehicles first, engines rumbling back to life, lights flickering and brakes squealing. The buildings and street lights, however, remained dark.


A flash, magnesium-bright, filled the park. Lois gasped.


“That came from the harbour,” Wonder Woman said and began to move faster, pulling Lois with her. They reached the tall fence that surrounded the facility and she looked at her companion. Wonder Woman could jump the fence easily, but she couldn’t carry Lois with her, and if she were to keep her promise to Superman, she couldn’t leave her behind, either.


“No way,” Lois said, as if Wonder Woman had asked her to wait, or hide.


“Diana, look up,” Superman’s voice came from somewhere above them.


She obeyed automatically, searching the dark sky for some sign of him. He was very far above.


“I see you, Kal.” She spoke at normal volume, trusting his keener senses as he had trusted hers.


“He’s here?” Lois looked up, craning to see.


“Any word from Batman?” Superman asked her.


“No, but you can trust him. He will die before he breaks his word to you.”


“I can’t go in there until I know she’s safe.”


Wonder Woman understood. She touched the comm. “Batman.”


Immediately, his voice came back. “I’m a...bit...busy!” he grunted and she heard the roar of an AK-47.


“Need any help?” she asked casually, making light of it because she knew Superman heard everything she did.


The gunfire chopped off. “Piece of...cake,” Batman sent, but he was breathing hard. “Is he with you?”


“He can hear you,” she confirmed.


“Then I’ll leave the comm open. This won’t take long.”


“Kal?” Wonder Woman looked up to where he hovered, high above the facility.


“I’m listening. Thank you,” he said. Then, in a very different voice, “Oh, no. Lex, what have you done?”


“Kal?” Wonder Woman spoke sharply.


“Luthor is inside the ship. He’s activated the genesis chamber. I don’t know how. He has no idea what he’s doing.”


“Genesis chamber?” she repeated and saw Lois’s eyes go wide, her face draining of colour.


“You know about this?” Wonder Woman asked.


Before Lois could answer, Wonder Woman heard Batman’s voice over the comm. “I believe you,” he said, answering someone she hadn’t heard. There was a single, loud gunshot, a man’s scream of pain and then Bruce said, “It’s okay, you’re safe. I’m a friend of your son.”


A woman’s voice, muffled by the comm and somewhat shaky, answered. “I figured. The cape?”


And Batman chuckled. “You’ll be fine. D, tell him I’m taking her to safety, then I’ll join you both.” The comm cut out.


Superman dived through the roof of the facility with a loud crash.


“We have to get inside!” Lois moved toward the gate.


They would not get in that way. The gate was guarded. Wonder Woman pulled her back. “We will. Just wait.”


 


 


When he last saw it, the genesis chamber was intact, its strange substance a dark shape filled with stars. It had been beautiful, and frightening, even before Superman understood what it was.


Now it was ugly. The chamber was partly flooded with a mixture of water and blood. Light shone through that awful liquid so everything he saw had a pink tinge to it. Lex stood in the middle, bloody water soaking into his white pants, his hand outstretched toward a huge gelatinous blob. The whole room reeked of old blood and rotten meat.


Superman hovered above the surface. “What have you done?” he asked, disgusted.


Lex turned around, raising his outstretched hand as if conducting music. “You’re late,” he snapped, “and one Bat-head short, I see.” His phone rang and he smiled gleefully, touching the screen to answer the call. “Hello, hello! Break the bad news!”


Superman waited.


“I’d rather do the breaking in person,” Batman’s voice rasped over the speaker.


Lex stopped breathing for a moment.


“You’ve lost,” Superman told him, moving forward.


There was a crackling sound like electricity and another blinding flash forced him to close his eyes. He heard a splash.


“No! I cannot let you win!” Lex cried.


When Superman could see clearly again, that ugly gelatinous blob was splitting open. Something inside it...something like a huge, meaty hand, pushed its way through the slit. A shape appeared, eyes glowed, a mouth opened in a silent scream.


And Lex stood before it, unafraid. Smiling.


It rose above him, vaguely human in shape but oh, it could not possibly be human. Or animal. A monstrous thing of muscle and grey-green skin, and teeth.


“Ancient, Kryptonian abomination,” Lex said reverently. He raised his hand, palm-out and Superman saw a red gash across his skin. “Blood of my blood! Created with one purpose, one mind. To kill you, Superman.”


And the thing roared. And Lex moved. And it pulled itself out of the chamber with a horrible, squelching, sucking sound, and it was big, much bigger than Superman had thought at first. It drew back one gigantic hand and lunged for him.


Lex cried out, but Superman had no time to see what happened. He could only guess that in its haste to attack, the creature had knocked Lex out of the way.


Superman flung out his hands, catching it, stopping the wild thrust but it was strong, so strong! It flung him away and he careened, out of control, through the wall of the ship, through the wall of the building. He managed to stop his flight over the water and dived back in as it thrust itself through the roof of the building.


Superman had time for only one thought: keep it away from the city!


 


 


It was the stuff of nightmares or horror movies: a great hulking thing fighting its way through rubble.


Lois stood, frozen, her terror not for herself but for the man she loved. She couldn’t see him, but she knew he was there. He had to be.


Beside her, Wonder Woman stood straight, apparently unfazed. “You need to find shelter,” she said.


Lois shook herself. “Can you fight that thing?”


Wonder Woman bared her teeth in an expression that was half smile, half snarl. “I’ve killed worse than that before. But I promised to protect you.”


“Go. I’ll be fine,” Lois insisted.


The two women exchanged one final look, and then Wonder Woman took off at a run. Lois watched her leap onto the creature’s back as it stumbled toward the city. She drew a sword from a scabbard across her back and thrust it into the monster’s flesh. It roared. Lois saw Superman take advantage of the moment to grab its huge arm, pulling it backward.


They would be okay. They had to be okay. Lois could do nothing to help them, but she had no intention of hiding in a hole until it was over. She looked up at what was left of the facility. If there had been guards, they were gone. The fence that had surrounded the facility was missing; the monster still wore part of it. A great hole in the building, torn from roof to floor, made locked doors useless. Moving carefully in the darkness - it wouldn’t do to twist an ankle now - Lois picked her way across to the building and climbed through the hole.


The fallen scout ship lay at an odd angle, partially submerged in the water of the bay. They hadn’t even dry-docked the vessel, just built their shell around it, water and all.


This was the ship where she first met Clark, long before he was Superman. She had gone to investigate reports of something huge found beneath the Canadian glacier and followed the strange man who climbed down there alone, without even basic safety equipment, to investigate the find. Following him aboard she was attacked by the ship’s security system. Clark saved her life and then vanished. Lois’s long quest to track down her mysterious saviour ended with her falling in love.


Lois found the way into the ship. A set of steps had been installed, making entry easy, but she approached the ship with caution, not knowing if the security system that almost killed her before might still be active. But there was no sign of the strange, floating robots that guarded the ship before, and she moved onward with a little more confidence.


As she moved further into the ship, what she was seeing became more familiar. Lois knew more about this technology than any other human. Jor-El had taught her, so that she in turn could teach his son how to save the Earth from Zod and his people. Evidently, she remembered more of Jor-El’s lesson than she thought, because she found the way to the genesis chamber easily.


The genesis chamber was an advanced cloning facility, or at least that was as closely as Lois could understand it. From a genetic sample, it could create a fully formed adult Kryptonian, independent and capable of immediately assuming its intended role in their society. But it wouldn’t work with just any genetic sample. You couldn’t clone yourself, for example. To work properly, to create a perfect Kryptonian individual, it needed a sample from the codex. Which, in a way Lois didn’t understand at all, now meant from Clark. From Kal-El. Any other source would be tainted. Such tainted genes had been used in the past for experimentation, but the results had been unpredictable. Abomination, was the word Jor-El used.


Lex Luthor couldn’t have known any of this. He shouldn’t have known how to operate the technology at all! But Lois had known, the moment Wonder Woman named the genesis chamber, that he had created something horrible.


She climbed through the door to the chamber and the smell hit her at once. God, it stank like something died in here! The ground was wet and slick with something she didn’t think was water. She held onto the wall for balance as she made her way inside.


Lex Luthor lay, half in, half out of the bloody liquid, his eyes open but apparently unseeing.


The sudden surge of hatred Lois felt stopped her short. He threw her off a building! He nearly got her and Jimmy killed in the desert. He used her to get to Clark. He used her!


Never again.


She looked around for a weapon, but saw nothing. Perhaps it didn’t matter. They were alone; she could take a scrawny little kid if she had to.


She moved closer to him. “Get up,” she barked.


Lex rolled over, getting more of that awful stuff on his clothing. He looked up at her and she saw the bloody gash on the side of his head. That explained why he seemed out of his head. “I gave them every chance,” he said. “Every chance.”


“Get up, asshole,” Lois repeated. It wasn’t as if she could enforce the order, but she tried to sound confident.


“There cannot be gods among us.” Lex tried to get up, but his foot slipped and he splashed back down again. “If man cannot kill god, the devil will.”


Lois shook her head. “So, what? You made a devil?”


Lex giggled. “Blood to blood, bone to bone.” His eyes turned from her and Lois saw what he had done.


He really was insane.


 


 


The great statue at the centre of Heroes’ Park was in six pieces. In the middle of them, the monster raised its huge hands and roared at the sky.


Superman flew at its face, figuring a good punch would at least hurt it. The creature swatted at him as if he were a fly. He swooped down to avoid the blow but it caught him. Oh! That hurt! The impact blew him across the park and he crashed into the ground with an impact that sent chunks of asphalt flying.


The monster picked up a chunk of statue and, using it as a club, brought it down on him. For a few moments, everything went black.


Superman could be hurt. His body was tougher than any human’s and he healed at an accelerated rate, but being squashed like a bug between granite and asphalt still hurt. He raised himself on all fours, his cape covering him like a shield, and looked up.


Wonder Woman’s lasso looped around the monster’s torso, pinning its arms. The rope glowed brightly as the monster struggled in vain against it. Superman took advantage of those precious seconds to fly upward, scan the ground and get the last few civilians in the area to a safe distance. Then he flew for the nearest patrol car.


“You need to evacuate this area,” he shouted to the cops. “Get everyone out of the harbour area as quickly as you can.”


One of them grabbed the radio repeated his orders. Satisfied, Superman returned to the fight.


 


 


Wonder Woman screamed with the effort of holding the monster down. She knew that, even with the lasso, she couldn’t hold it much longer. It was too strong!


She released the lasso, drew her sword and waited, watching for the right moment. The monster reacted to its unexpected freedom as she expected: by raising its arms to shrug off the lasso.


Wonder Woman leapt. She could not fly, but she could jump. She flew upward, over the creature’s head and as she reached the apex of her leap, she brought the sword down on its unprotected arm.


The blade sliced through flesh and sinew and bone, severing the limb above the elbow, leaving it hanging by a thin strip of flesh. Dark blood spurted from the wound. The monster roared its agony and Wonder Woman landed on her feet as Superman landed beside her.


“Wonder Woman,” Alfred’s voice came over the comm.


“A little busy here!” she returned.


“I noticed. You should know that the military are preparing to respond to the situation. The chatter moved to a secure channel before I could get the specifics.”


“They won’t get here in time,” Wonder Woman answered.


“They can’t dent this thing anyway,” Superman said.


The monster reached around itself with its remaining arm, grasped the dangling, severed hand and tore it away, bellowing all the time. It raised the stump to the sky.


“Oh, gods. It’s regenerating!”


Superman took a breath. “Wish me luck,” he said, and before Wonder Woman could do anything to stop him, he was flying, faster than a bullet from a gun. He flew close to the ground, a blur of scarlet against the darkness. When he reached the monster he didn’t punch or attack. Not this time. This time he lifted it into the air.


Wonder Woman heard him cry out with the effort as he flew, slowly at first, then picking up speed, carrying the monster into the air, over the bay, away from the city. Higher and higher he flew, until she could barely see him against the black of the sky.


The silence it left behind was deafening. For a moment, Wonder Woman could only stand there. She retrieved her fallen lasso and looped it back on its hook at her waist.


“Batman, what’s your status?”


“Martha is safe in the apartment. I’m just heading back to the plane.”


“I think he’s taking that thing into space. I can’t see them any more.”


“NORAD is tracking,” Alfred reported. “They’re still climbing.”


“Will it work?” Batman asked.


“I have no idea,” Wonder Woman told him. She turned her back on the broken statue and ran for the ship, and Lois.


 


 

Washington DC


“POTUS joining,” Major Farris reported.


Swanwick noted that her eyes never left the live stream of data and images from Metropolis. The situation room was in an uproar.


“Mr President,” he acknowledged.


“What the hell is it, Calvin?” The president demanded.


“We don’t know,” he answered, doing his best not to sound as helpless as he felt. “It emerged from the crashed Kryptonian ship.”


“Sir, they’ve cleared the city,” Farris reported.


“We can go straight to key red, Mr President,” General Baldwin suggested.


“Are you crazy?” Swanwick objected.


“They are high enough that we can nuke them with no casualties,” Baldwin insisted.


One casualty, Mr President,” Swanwick pointed out relentlessly. “Superman.” But even as he spoke, he knew what was coming.


There was a silence, and then the President spoke. “God have mercy on us all.”


Swanwick nodded to Baldwin and prayed that Superman could outrun a ballistic nuclear missile.


 


 

Metropolis


Wonder Woman looped her lasso around Lex Luthor’s body and tied his hands. The young man offered no resistance. She tugged on the lasso and he walked as she indicated, toward the exit.


“The lasso is a gift of my people,” Wonder Woman explained to Lois. “When used as a weapon it will not break, no matter how much strain is put on it. But it is also an instrument of truth.”


Lois glanced back at Lex. “What do you mean?”


“It may not work as well for you as it does for me,” Wonder Woman said, “but as long as he is bound with it, he is bound to truth.”


“You mean he can’t lie?”


“Exactly.”


“But once he realises that, he’ll just stay quiet.”


Wonder Woman smiled. “Perhaps. I can compel answers, but whether it will work that way for you...I’m not sure. You’re strong, Lois. If you are a truthful person yourself, I believe you’ll be able to wield the lasso.” It was a big if. Lois’s profession was not well known for honesty. But Clark loved her. He wouldn’t love someone who lived her life in lies.


She offered the end of the lasso to Lois. “Regardless, he cannot free himself until you let him go. I suggest you wait until the police risk coming closer.”


Lois smiled and accepted the lasso. She turned to Lex. “Let’s start with why you had me abducted this morning.”


Lex looked at her, frowning, and began to speak.


 


 


As he threw himself and Luthor’s monster higher and higher above the Earth, Superman found the clamour of the city fading away. Though there was more to hear as the cities behind them blurred into many, it was paradoxically easier to cut through the billions of voices to find what he needed than it was to sift through thousands.


What he needed was Secretary Swanwick’s voice. He heard his conversation with the President. He knew a nuclear strike had been authorised. That told him just how expendable he was to them...but it also did seem like a reasonable solution.


He put on an extra burst of speed then slowed for a moment so the monster’s momentum carried it upward, away from him, for just a moment before it began to fall back. Not long enough. He pushed harder, higher, further.


In the near-vacuum of the thermosphere there was no sound. So Superman had no warning of the missile’s approach.


He saw it, too late. He pushed the monster just that little bit further, turning it into the path of the missile. He released it and started his dive back to Earth.


The missile struck.


Superman’s world became white noise and fire.


And pain.


And pain.


And nothing.


 


 


The Batplane landed in what was left of Heroes’ Park as Wonder Woman ran toward it. Batman opened the windshield and prepared to disembark.


Suddenly, there was light everywhere. He looked up to see a new sun in the sky above the bay. There was only one thing that could possibly be.


Wonder Woman reached him, threw herself against him, but her eyes, too, were on the sky. Batman held her, taking comfort as much as giving it.


“Superman?” he asked, knowing the answer. They nuked him. The bastards actually nuked him.


 


 


Martha Kent, alone in a strange apartment high above the city, could not avoid seeing the light in the sky. The windows of the penthouse gave her a perfect view.


She hugged herself tightly, looking up at the burning sky. She didn’t know what she was seeing, but she was sure it somehow involved her son.


Then something streaked out of the circle of fire. Like a meteorite, it burned bright as it fell, leaving an after-image in her sight as it smashed into the waters of the bay.


 


 


The Batplane streaked across the water, racing to the point of impact. Batman didn’t know whether it was Superman or the monster that fell, but either way, he needed to be there when it surfaced.


Beside him, Wonder Woman watched the skies anxiously. “I don’t see a second body. Shouldn’t they both fall?”


“Not if one was vaporised by that nuke,” Batman pointed out. He slowed the plane above Strikers Island and waited.


And waited, as the light from the bomb faded to nothing.


The water exploded ahead of them and the monster burst forth, bellowing with rage.


Batman broke out the cannons and fired.


 


 

Somewhere In Orbit


Far above the Earth, Superman drifted in space, unconscious, his body severely damaged by the nuclear blast.


As his body drifted out of the planet’s shadow and into the light of Earth’s yellow sun, his damaged cells responded to the radiation, shifting, repairing, regenerating. Strengthening.


Burned nerves re-grew and began to fire their urgent signals of pain, pain, pain to his brain and Clark woke screaming. His lungs produced no sound. There was no air, not to breathe nor to conduct the sound waves, but his body struggled to express the agony in any way it could. He writhed, and screamed, and silently begged for an end.


But his body, nourished by the alien radiation of Earth’s sun, healed. Pain faded. Skin smoothed. Muscles strengthened. He hovered at the outer edge of Earth’s thermosphere, gazing at the sun that saved him. Then he turned and flew back to Earth.


There was an island in Metropolis’s bay: Strikers Island. Once a government facility where scientists tested biological weapons, Strikers Island was abandoned in 1975 when such weapons were outlawed. With access to the island still forbidden, there was nothing there but ruined buildings and seabirds.


And now, a monster stood on the island, its great fists pounding the remaining walls to rubble.


As Superman flew closer, he saw that the creature wasn’t there alone. Batman and Wonder Woman still fought, desperately outmatched.


He saw the moment Batman’s plane ran out of ammo. He saw the creature turn to the thing that had been shooting at it. He saw Batman scramble to get out of the plane. He saw the monster’s eyes burn red with a fire he had seen in only one other’s eyes: Zod.


Superman was too far away. Still weakened, he could not fly faster. He would not reach them in time.


Wonder Woman leapt in front of Batman. She raised her hands, wrists crossed like a shield. She was magnificent in that moment, an avenging angel, but the gesture seemed futile, her body could not possibly...


Red beams shot from the monster’s eyes, hit Wonder Woman’s crossed bracelets and rebounded. An arc of red formed over her and Batman.


Superman flew toward them.


The onslaught stopped. Wonder Woman parted her wrists and raised her hands as if pushing at an invisible barrier. The same scarlet energy shot from her hands to the creature. It roared and, impossibly, fell back. Somehow she had absorbed its energy and returned it.


Superman landed beside them. “Nice shot,” he said.


Wonder Woman was grinning, high on the adrenaline.


“We can’t beat that thing,” Batman said. “Whatever we throw at it seems to make it stronger.”


“I noticed,” Superman agreed.


“Going high didn’t work,” Wonder Woman said. “Can you go deep?”


Superman turned to her. “Deep?” They didn’t exactly have time for a long discussion.


“It’s strong but it needs space to move to use its strength. If you could bury it deep enough...”


“In the earth?”


“No, the ocean. The Puerto Rico trench is closest. I can show you, but I can’t swim that deep. Can you?”


Superman had no idea. He could survive under the water, yes, he knew that. But she was talking about depths where the sun that powered him couldn’t penetrate... And since this creature was part Kryptonian that was perfect. If he could bury it that deep it wouldn't be able to recharge. It might even die.


“Only one way to find out,” he said, and took flight just as the monster exploded out of the water once more.


 


 

Metropolis


Lois shoved her prisoner face-first against the fence. She was disgusted with everything she’d heard.


Lex doubled over as his body hit the fence post. He yelled in pain, but didn’t say anything more.


“One more thing,” Lois said. She reached for his hand and pulled the kryptonite ring from his finger.


“That’s mine!”


She slipped the ring onto her own hand. “Call it compensation,” she said and tugged on the lasso before directing him toward the patrol cars that now surrounded the facility. She began to unwind the lasso from his torso as they crossed the small distance.


One of the officers approached them and with a final twitch the rope fell away from Lex’s hands. Lois pushed him toward the cop.


“Kidnapping, assault, illegal genetic experimentation, and the manslaughter of everyone that creature has killed,” she said, projecting her voice so everyone in the vicinity could hear.


“You’re wasting your time.” Free of the lasso’s control, some of Lex’s former bravado returned. “My lawyers will have me free in an hour. Your evidence is your word against mine.”


Lois took the cell phone from her pocket, and touched the screen. Her voice came from the phone’s speaker. Let’s start with why you had me abducted this morning.


The officer brandished a set of handcuffs and snapped them around Lex’s wrists. “You have the right to remain silent...”


Lois emailed copies of the MP3 to herself, Clark, Perry and Bruce Wayne, then handed the phone to the cop. “He gave me a full confession,” she smiled. “And Lex...”


He looked at her, saying nothing.


“You’d better hope they keep you inside for a very long time. You pissed off some very powerful people today.” Unable to resist, she grinned. “And that’s gonna make a great headline.”


 


 

The Caribbean, off the coast of Puerto Rico


Wonder Woman was raised on an island. She was a strong swimmer. She could hold her breath for an unnaturally long time and the dark and cold didn’t bother her. But she was not a fish and there were limits to her endurance. By the time they reached the co-ordinates of the Milwaukee Deep, the deepest part of the Puerto Rico trench, she was near her limit.


Superman carried the creature through the water, surfacing occasionally to blast it again with his laser fire which seemed to keep it subdued. Batman flew alongside.


“Here,” Wonder Woman said finally, coming to the surface so they could talk.


“You know you’ll probably set off an earthquake doing this,” Batman pointed out.


“I can keep it down to a two or three,” Superman promised. “If this works.” He looked at Diana. “Promise me you won’t go too deep. Tap out while you’ve still got enough to get you to the surface.”


“I will.”


“Then let’s do this.” He rose out of the water, lifting the monster with him, flew upward, turned and dived.


Batman barely had time to get out of the way of the splash. Wonder Woman took a deep breath and dived under the dark water.


Down. Down.


Superman struggled with the creature that had suddenly figured out it needed to breathe. Wonder Woman went to his aid. Together, they carried it deeper.


Deeper into the black.


She felt the pressure build in her lungs and released her air in short bursts of bubbles.


They swam deeper.


When she could go no further, she signalled to Superman with a touch, and pointed upward. He nodded. Wonder Woman released the creature and turned to swim for the surface.


As she turned, something, some movement, caught her eye. A dark shape. Moving. Closing on their position.


Impossible to cry warning. Impossible to get Superman’s attention. Already he was far below. She swam upward, abandoning him because there was nothing else she could do, and live.


 


 


Hold, intruder!


The words thundered in Superman’s mind and his body obeyed instinctively before his mind caught up. He had almost stopped his descent, and the creature, sensing weakness, roused again.


Superman forced his thoughts back into focus and redoubled his efforts to take the monster down.


Hold!


This time, he didn’t slow, but he did turn his head, searching the ocean for something, anything, that might be the source of that strange inner thunder.


The figure that approached appeared human, and yet could not be. Thick dark hair, skin patterned with scales, eyes that seemed to glow in this depth where the sun could not penetrate. The man - if it was a man - held a trident and pointed it at him, matching the speed of his descent into the deep.


Who on Earth...?


I could ask you the same.


You hear my thoughts?


Obviously. By what right do you invade my realm?


Necessity. I need a prison for this...abomination. Superman didn’t know if this strange man could see his thoughts as well as hear, but what did he have to lose? He focussed on recalling what happened in Metropolis, the creature’s unnatural birth, their flight into space, the bomb, Wonder Woman’s plan.


You ask much. Will you repay the debt?


If I can, Superman promised, not sure what form his repayment might take, but willing.


Then follow. The man pointed his trident down and swam.


Others joined them, surrounding Superman and the creature. Still they descended until finally, finally, he glimpsed the bottom. So deep the water was no longer cold but warmed by the Earth’s core, Superman began to doubt the wisdom of this plan. The heat might stimulate the creature, heal it. But it was too late.


The strange warriors took the creature from him and he had no way to ask what they were doing or to object. He could only watch as they carried it to the floor of the Deep.


The floor moved. Not the earthquake Batman feared. No, this was some new creature. What he had taken for the ocean floor was a living thing! It rose, slowly, and tentacles thicker than tree trunks uncurled. It surrounded the creature, pulled it inward with apparent ease and was once again still. Invisible.


The creature wasn’t dead. Could it escape? Could it fight this thing?


It will hold. You will repay the debt.


There was an implied threat - if he failed to repay, the creature would be released. But Superman had no intention of betraying his promise.


I will repay the debt. You only have to ask.


Then go.


Superman hovered where he was for a moment longer. Thank you, he sent and saw the strange warrior nod in acknowledgement. Then he turned and flew upward through the water.


 


 


Diana broke the surface, gasping for breath. A wave splashed over her head and she choked on the water. She had waited too long.


“Diana!”


She sank beneath the water again. Frantically, she kicked out but her legs felt weak and heavy. She tried to reach upward and found only more water. Her heart raced and she took an involuntary breath. Water streamed into her lungs and she fought not to cough.


“Diana!”


A splash beside her and she reached out blindly. Her hand found the cord, one of Batman’s lines, and she wrapped it about her wrist gratefully. He reeled her in like a fish on a line and pulled her out of the water and onto the Batplane.


“Diana,” he said again, pulling the Bat mask off. He held her against him, his arms tight around her.


She returned his embrace, savouring it, glad to be alive.


Moments later they were inside the plane, sweeping across the water on their way back to Metropolis.


They could not wait for Superman. He would succeed or fail; there was nothing more they could do.


She saw Bruce look at the fuel gauge. “Can we make it back?” she asked.


Bruce looked grim. “She’s not built for long distance. We have twenty percent fuel and that’s more than I expected.”


“What do we do?” Diana asked the question calmly, but she was worried.


“Hope we can make it to Florida,” Bruce answered tensely. “As long as we land on US soil Alfred can send a chopper.”


“Can we make it?”


He grimaced. “It’ll be close.”


Neither of them spoke after that. Diana closed her eyes and leaned back in the co-pilot’s seat. She tried to think of nothing.


She had abandoned Superman.


And Bruce let out a sudden shout. “He’s here!”


Diana opened her eyes, twisted in the seat to see Superman flying alongside. He gave her a thumbs-up: victory.


“Need a boost?” he shouted.


Bruce tapped the fuel gauge. “Won’t refuse, if you’re up to it.”


“Hold tight.”


Superman vanished from Diana’s sight but a moment later she felt the plane pick up speed. Then everything blurred, g-force slammed her into the seat, and seconds later, eased. Impossibly, she saw Metropolis ahead.


They flew side by side toward the city and came to Heroes’ Park. Batman landed beside the ruins of the statue and opened the plane.


Diana started to climb out, then saw Lois running toward them. She stayed in the plane, reaching for Bruce’s hand. His gloved fingers closed around hers. They were home. They were safe.


 


 


Lois saw the plane touch down and ran across the park. There he was, the cape billowing around him in the wind. She threw herself into Superman’s arms.


“Clark, oh God, I was so worried!”


He held her close for a moment. “I’m alright, Lois. Everything’s alright.” He drew back and lifted her chin with one finger. “Lex?” he asked.


“Under arrest.”


Superman glanced up at the plane, where Wonder Woman and Batman waited. “Where’s my mother?” he asked.


Batman answered, “My apartment where we met the other day. It seemed like the safest place. You can use the place as long as you need.”


Superman nodded. “Thanks. For everything. Now let’s get out of here before something else happens.”


As the plane windshield closed around them, Lois heard Batman say, “Gotham?”


And Wonder Woman answered, “Yes, Gotham.”


Lois laid her head on Clark’s shoulder. “You need to see your mom.”


“I really do,” he agreed.


“Could you drop me at the Planet on the way? I have a hell of a story to write for the morning edition.”


His arms tightened around her waist and together, they rose into the air.



Just a canon note: in the BvS movie Aquaman was shown inhabiting the Tonga Trench, which is in the South Pacific. I couldn't see the Batplane, or Wonder Woman, making it that far, so I relocated to the Caribbean. Not quite as deep, but at least my heroes could survive the journey!



Read Chapter 5



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