Chapter 3: Batman and Superman
Three months later
“You’re holding a .365 magnum loaded with armour-piercing bullets,” Mercy told Lex. “Give it a try.”
Lex weighed the gun in his hand and took aim at the figure in front of him. It wasn’t a real person, just a test dummy dressed in armour. The armour was the important thing. It had been recovered from the ruins of Metropolis by one of his clean-up crews. How a Kryptonian suit came to be there, no one knew. Lex guessed that somehow, during his battle with Superman, Zod had removed it. Perhaps because, on Earth, he didn’t need it any longer. Ever since then, LexLabs had been working to reproduce the armour. They had finally succeeded, and Lex was here to test the prototype.
He held the gun in a two-handed grip, as he had been taught, held it steady, targeting the middle of the chest. He took a deep breath, then another and slowly squeezed the trigger.
He thought he was prepared for the kick-back, but the gun leapt in his hands, the report deafening. Lex remembered to bring the gun back on target, but he didn’t need to fire again. He stared.
The test dummy was still upright, but slumped to one side on its stand, showing that his bullet had hit it. But the armoured chest plate appeared to be untouched. Maybe his aim had been off?
Mercy gestured to him to lower the gun and when he did, she walked into the firing zone. She bent and picked something up from the concrete floor, looked at it, and smiled.
Lex held out his hand and she dropped it into his palm. The armour piercing bullet was still warm. It was also as flat as a dime.
Lex crowed with delight. He raised the gun again, waited for Mercy to get out of his line of fire, then shot again, and this time kept shooting until the gun was empty. The test dummy jerked and danced with each shot. His ears ringing despite the protection he wore, Lex discarded the gun and crossed the zone to the dummy. He pulled it up and ran his fingers over the armour.
Not even a scratch.
Lex turned around and saw the men and women watching him, waiting for his verdict. He looked for the lead scientist, Doctor Wilder. He beckoned and the man came forward.
“I trust you’re satisfied, sir,” he said cautiously.
“How quickly can we get this into mass production?” Lex asked.
Wilder looked taken aback. “I don’t know.”
“That’s not acceptable,” Lex snapped.
“I’m sorry, sir. What I meant to say is while we are now able to synthesise the Kryptonian materials used to make the armour, making them on this small scale is very different from mass production. How long it will take depends on a lot of different factors. I can consult with specialists in the manufacturing division, but I can’t give you an answer right now.”
Lex nodded. “Better. How many of these suits can you manufacture in, say, six weeks? Using your current methods.”
Wilder considered. “Sir, it took eight weeks to make this one. The next will go faster, but six weeks?”
“On what budget, Mr Luthor?”
“Oh, piss on your budget! I’ll write you a blank cheque. Answer the fucking question!”
Wilder swallowed. “I believe I can promise three. We may be able to do better, but that’s the most I’m able to guarantee.”
Lex relaxed. “Manufacturing will be in touch with you tomorrow. In the meantime, email me an itemised budget request. I will give you seven weeks, but I need at least five of these suits.”
He saw Wilder draw breath to object and picked up the gun again. It was empty but his gesture made his point. Wilder swallowed hard, his adam’s apple bobbing above his shirt collar.
“Yes, sir. It will be done.”
Lex handed the gun to Mercy. “Good.” He grinned at the test dummy, then left the room with Mercy at his heels.
Batman stood on top of the crane, high above Gotham’s dock. Far below, a freight ship just in from Port Blair in the Andaman Islands was being unloaded. Unusually, the cargo was being loaded straight onto a fleet of trucks. Most of the cargo was unremarkable: spices from India, computer components, some industrial chemicals. But the ship was carrying something else. Batman did not know exactly what it was, but the emails he intercepted contained words like “radioactive” and “weaponised”. It was more than enough to get his attention. Whatever they were trying to smuggle into his city would not reach its destination.
So far, he detected no sign of it.
A man appeared on the deck carrying a box that was evidently too heavy for him to tote easily. Batman turned his visor to the box, scanning on infra-red. It wasn’t a perfect system, but radioactive material would, by its nature, be warm. So he was looking either for a hotspot, or for something packed in coolant. The box showed cool. He switched to visual. The box was a plain wood crate with no markings on the outside. The man rested the box on the ship’s rail. His shirt was open and the prominent tattoos clearly marked him as belonging to a Russian organised crime syndicate.
This seemed the most likely target, but Batman didn’t like not knowing for sure. He couldn’t afford to get this wrong. Gotham couldn’t afford for him to get this wrong.
“There is an armoured vehicle approaching your position,” Alfred reported tensely.
“I see it,” Batman agreed.
The Russian was still on the deck. The first of the trucks began to move off the dock. If the Russian and his box wasn’t the target, if instead it was on one of the trucks, Gotham was in trouble.
Batman zeroed in on the Russian, transmitting images back to Alfred. “Can you ID him?”
“Running facial recognition,” Alfred reported.
The facial recognition program was good, but it would take too long. In the best case scenario, the package he was looking for contained something like depleted uranium: dangerous but not an immediate threat. In the worst case, it was a dirty bomb, ready to detonate.
The armoured truck pulled on to the dock and the Russian hefted the box into his arms and headed down the gangplank.
Batman had to take a chance. The truck was almost enough to make it a certainty: outwardly old and a bit rusty but Batman could see how heavy it was from the way the vehicle took the corner. It was heavy because it was armoured and reinforced.
He raised the high powered rifle to his shoulder. Through the scope, he watched the Russian load the box into the van. As he began to close the door, Batman squeezed the trigger. The slam of the van door covered the gunshot with perfect timing. The magnetic tracker hit the van just behind the rear tyre. The Russian didn’t notice.
“Anything?” Batman asked.
Damn. “I’m following the Russian,” he decided. Batman jumped off the crane. He spread his arms wide as he fell, and his cape opened, slowing his fall like the wings it resembled. The cord attaching him to the crane unravelled as he fell. Directly beneath the crane was the roof of the warehouse. Just before he hit the roof the cord reached its full length and stretched, slowing his descent further so he landed hard on the steel roof, but not so hard it hurt. He detached the cord quickly and sprinted to the edge of the roof. His car waited below.
The tracker was active and following the van was easy. He followed, keeping out of sight since even in the dark his car was very noticeable. The console displayed a city map that showed him where the Russian was headed. Unfortunately, it looked like they were making a beeline for the centre of Gotham.
Batman couldn’t take that risk. “Alert GCPD. They need to know the van I’m chasing could be carrying a dirty bomb.”
“Sending now,” Alfred confirmed.
Batman saw the van turn toward the financial district. He put on more speed. Nothing in the communications he intercepted suggested an attack was imminent, but the financial district wasn’t a likely place to deliver something like this. It was more likely to be a target and that made Batman uneasy. He put on more speed. The time for stealth was over.
He wove in and out of the traffic between him and the van. Before he reached it, the driver noticed the Batmobile and accelerated, changing lanes in a futile attempt to evade the pursuit. It didn’t work.
Batman opened his weapons control panel. Matching the van’s vector he fired a harpoon. It pierced the rear door, even through the reinforcement, linking the van to the Batmobile with a steel cord.
Someone leaned out of the van with a gun. Idiots. Bullets bounced off the Batmobile but ricochet could kill innocent bystanders. Batman accelerated, closing the distance between himself and the van, reeling the harpoon cord in to prevent the van regaining distance. When there was barely a car-length between them, Batman hit the brakes and wrenched the wheel to the right. The Batmobile was built to take it. The van rolled, smashed into the Batmobile and both vehicles slid off the road, across the sidewalk and into the glass front of a store. Alarms blared.
At least the shooting had stopped.
Batman leapt out and headed for the van. The Russian was clambering out of the battered door. He had a bag strapped to his back, bulky enough to contain whatever was in the box. Batman glanced into the van long enough to see that the box was open - and empty - before pursuing the Russian into the night.
The Russian barrelled through the doors of the nearest building. Batman heard a shout followed by gunfire. He burst into the lobby in time to see the elevator doors close behind the Russian. The security guard was down.
“Denver Insurance Building. Send EMTs,” he ordered. He headed for the stairwell.
Why had the Russian entered here? This couldn’t be where the Russian was delivering his package. Maybe an improvised escape? If so, would he head for the roof, or was he hoping to divert his pursuer by making it look like he was headed that way and escape through the lobby? The stairwell was wide enough for Batman to reach the roof ahead of the elevator. He took a chance. He fired the grapnel up and used it to fly up through the stairwell. He could hear distant sirens approaching.
He pushed open the doors to the roof.
Flames engulfed him! What the hell? Batman raised the cape to protect his exposed skin, whirling to turn his back on the flames. The armour felt hot and he smelled napalm. The cape was supposed to be flameproof, but it wouldn’t stand up to napalm! Batman could not let this slow him down. Ignoring the flames as much as possible, he pushed open the door again. This time he was ready. He grabbed the flamethrower with both hands, shoved it into the man wielding it hard enough to break ribs, and followed with his fist. The man went down.
It wasn’t the Russian.
Somehow they had been expecting him, and were ready with this ambush.
Batman ran to the edge of the roof. He tore the burning cape off his shoulders as he ran. He looked down into the street below and saw the Russian running from the building. Damn!
He fired a fresh grapnel across the street and secured the other end to the roof where he stood. He jumped, using the cord as a zipwire to get down to the street quickly.
Then he felt the line he was riding jerk sharply.
Taken completely by surprise, Batman fell, an uncontrolled plunge toward the street thirty storeys below. He had nothing to hold on to. Not even the cape to slow his descent. The street rushed at him. He was going to die and he had no time to think, or to regret.
Something clamped around his body and pulled him upward faster than he had been falling. He felt dizzy. Impossibly, he was flying! He was carried to a nearby roof and set down on his feet.
Batman’s heart pounded with the adrenaline rush from his close call. He whirled around to see what caught him.
And found himself face to face with the blue and red clad figure of Superman.
When most people discussed Superman’s abilities, even those who knew him, they tended to focus on his flashy powers: flight, speed, apparently limitless strength, invulnerability, even his ability to survive in space. They didn’t give much thought to the things that were normal abilities for them, and enhanced in him, such as his senses. For Clark, those were the things that had set him apart for as long as he could remember.
His hearing, as closely as he could tell, worked through the same biological mechanisms as human hearing. His was just many times more sensitive and had a greater range. He could hear subsonics that humans didn't hear but felt as vibrations, and ultrasonics far above the normal human range. His sense of taste was similarly oversensitive.
But his eyesight wasn’t like human sight at all. Clark understood how humans saw the world: he had seen paintings and photographs and understood that they were an accurate representation of human vision. He had trained himself to see the surfaces that humans did, but that took concentration. “Normal” vision for him went past the surfaces and encompassed everything that lay beneath. A face wasn’t the colours of skin and eyes, the shape of a mouth and nose. It was the unique pattern of blood and muscle and bone layered beneath flesh.
So when he finally came face-to-face with Batman, the black mask that concealed his identity from everyone else was all but irrelevant. Clark had known he would be able to see through it, that this criminal vigilante could not conceal his identity from Kryptonian eyes. What he had not expected, based on everything he had learned about the Batman, was that the face beneath the mask would be one he knew.
“Bruce Wayne?” The words slipped out before he could bite his tongue. A moment later, he thought, Of course. Who else could it be? Their brief conversation in the Capitol was burned into his memory, which Wayne had intended, he was sure. Every single day since then something happened that brought Wayne’s words to Clark’s mind: one bad day. When Clark slept, he woke with those words ringing from his dreams. Now he understood where the fury behind those words came from.
Batman froze at the sound of his real name. Their eyes met for a moment before he whirled and ran for the edge of the roof. Clark thought he was going to jump again, but instead Batman stopped, leaning over, searching the street.
“The man I was following. Do you see him?”
Clark scanned the street below quickly. “No, he's gone.”
“He was carrying radioactive material. I've got to stop him before - ”
Clark interrupted, “No, he wasn't. At least not when I arrived.”
“Are you sure?”
“The man: dark hair, a lot of tattoos, carrying a backpack?”
“There was nothing like that in his pack. I would have seen it. Even if it was in a lead-lined container, I’d be able to see enough to identify it.”
Batman turned to face him and rested his body against the wall that edged the roof. Clark heard his heartbeat slow down, his breathing steady. The adrenaline was leaving his system, draining him of energy.
Batman reached up and pulled the bat mask off. “That doesn’t make sense. He didn’t have time to hand it off. Are you certain?”
“Yes. Could he be a decoy?” Clark suggested.
He scowled. “Could be. It would explain why they were ready for me. Or there's a hole in my intel.” He drew in a deep breath. “Did you see who cut the rope?”
Clark had seen it happen. “It wasn’t exactly cut. Wait here.” He flew from the roof without waiting for a reply. He hovered for half a second, scanning, then dived to retrieve the thing he’d seen. He returned to the roof and offered the object to Bruce. “The rope was cut with this. I did see the archer, but not clearly enough to be helpful. A white male, pale hair, dressed in black. Catching you seemed more important than catching him.”
“Hard to argue with that.” Bruce examined the arrow, frowning.”There’s only one man I know this good with a bow, but he has no reason to want me dead.” He slid the arrow through a loop on his belt.
“Are you sure about radioactive material being smuggled in?” Clark asked.
Bruce nodded. “There’s a ship in the harbour called The White Portuguese. I’ve got the paper trail to prove she was smuggling something. Could have been a bomb or the materials to make one.”
This was not how Clark wanted his first encounter with Batman to go. He meant to confront him about his methods but the potential threat Bruce described was enough to persuade him to table that discussion for another time.
“I don’t know if I can track something like that, but I’ll fly to the dock and try.”
“Good.” Bruce pulled his mask back on. “I need to get my car before the cops do. If you find anything, will you let me know?”
“I will.” Clark turned, preparing to take off.
Batman called him back. “Clark. Thank you. For the save.”
“Don't make me regret it.” He took off, speeding toward the docks.
Only later did he realise that Batman had called him Clark, not Superman, at the end.
Lois woke to an empty bed but when she smelled coffee and freshly baked bread she instantly forgave Clark for letting her wake alone. She showered quickly and walked into the kitchenette in her robe, little beads of water visible on her exposed skin.
“That smells wonderful,” she said. There was fresh coffee in her French press and fresh flowers on the table. Everything was perfect.
Clark came over and kissed her. “I got in late and thought this was better than waking you.”
She poured coffee into a mug. “How late?”
“Did something happen?”
“It was, uh, a weird night. What would you like for breakfast?”
“The bread smells lovely, but...”
“If you say ‘carbs’ I’m making your favourite waffles instead,” Clark threatened with a grin.
She made a face. “Fine. I’ll do an extra hour at the gym. Not everyone has your metabolism, you know.”
He piled bread rolls into a serving basket and set them on the table next to the vase. “Smoked salmon, cheese or jelly?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Don’t you dare serve me jelly at this hour.”
The rolls were so fresh that steam escaped when she broke one open. She spread it with cheese, silently promising herself she would skip lunch, and took a bite. It was as delicious as it smelled.
Lois waited until Clark was sat down and had begun to eat before she spoke again. “Are you going to tell me about your night?”
“I flew over to Gotham,” Clark said, spreading jelly on his second roll. “I ran into the Batman.”
“You mean you went looking for him?” Lois expected he would, sooner or later. He had been researching the stories about Gotham’s famous vigilante since the shipyard incident a few months earlier. The Batman shot a couple of pedophiles and branded one of them. He’d saved several children, but his methods bothered Clark. He believed in the legal system and saw the Batman as no better than the criminals he hunted. As Superman, Clark was being very careful to avoid being seen as a crime fighter.
“I wasn’t looking. I was just flying when I heard shots and a traffic accident and went to see if I could help. It wasn’t bad, so as soon as EMT’s got there I left. Just in time to see Batman jumping off a building and someone sliced through his rope with an arrow.”
Lois’s eyes went wide. “Robin Hood tried to kill Batman?”
“Not Robin Hood, but yeah, someone. I caught him. Batman, not the archer.” Clark shook his head. “I keep thinking, maybe I’m going to regret that someday. But I couldn’t let him fall.”
“If you’d let him die, you’d be regretting that a lot more,” Lois pointed out. “Why do you think you might regret saving him?”
“Because I recognised him, Lois. I saw through the mask as easily as you see through a window.”
What had been an interesting anecdote suddenly became a supernova in Lois’s mind. “Oh, my god! You know who he is? Clark, that’s huge!”
Clark took a bite of his roll, avoiding her eyes.
That was weird. Lois went on, “I was a rookie at the Gotham Free Press before I got the job at the Planet. Back then the popular theory was that there were several men who used the Batman identity.”
Clark shook his head. “That’s logical, but I don’t think so.”
And then she understood his hesitation. “You don’t want to tell me who you saw.” She made it a statement, not a question, a little hurt that he didn’t trust her.
“I do want to, Lois, but... I know it’s a scoop. But we can’t print this. Promise me.”
He shouldn’t have to ask. “It’s your story, Clark. I would never try to scoop you!”
“I know you wouldn’t. This is bigger than that.”
She had to know who it was. Who could possibly affect Clark so much?
Lois said, “I keep all your secrets, Clark. I’ll keep this one, too.”
Clark pushed his plate away. “I’m sorry, but I had to ask. Like I said, it was a weird night.” He drew in a deep breath. “It was Bruce Wayne.”
Before she met Clark, the suggestion would have made her laugh. Bruce Wayne was a trust fund brat, a playboy, more likely to be found in the tabloids than in his own boardroom. But Clark saw the Gotham billionaire very differently, partly because of that photograph Jimmy managed to snap of him the day after the invasion, when Wayne joined the clean-up crews in Metropolis, and partly because of what Wayne said to him in the Capitol. Lois knew that brief conversation had distressed Clark a great deal.
It did make a kind of sense. If Bruce Wayne’s wastrel image were as much a cultivated mask as the Bat, then it did fit. It meant the mask was beginning to slip, and the Bruce Wayne whose testimony in the senate was so devastating was the real man behind the masks.
“I should have guessed sooner,” Clark said. “In that meeting, when I singled him out, Wayne said, ‘why are you asking me?’ and his heart sped up. He was scared. He thought I chose him because I knew then that he was Batman.”
“Does knowing who he is change how you feel about it? I mean, the story you were planning?”
“I don’t think so. It’s going to be harder to be objective, but it doesn’t change the facts of what he’s done.”
“Then I think the next step is to see if it’s possible to prove who he is.” Seeing Clark about to object, she went on quickly, “I’m not saying you have to print it, but you should have the choice, Clark. Investigative journalism is as much about choosing what to hold back as it is about getting the story out. Knowing who Batman is makes finding the evidence much easier.”
Clark nodded, but Lois sensed his reluctance. Something more had changed. Clark was usually eager to talk things over with her; this time he was holding back. Whatever it was, he was still figuring things out for himself. So Lois tried to suppress her own curiosity, at least for now.
“This is delicious,” she said, transparently changing the subject.
Clark smiled. “Thanks.” He drank some coffee and made a visible effort to shake off his mood. “So, tell me about your night. Did your contact get back to you?”
Lois suddenly felt nervous. “Yes. But it’s a good news/bad news thing.”
“The good news is...?”
“Amal believes the General will meet with me. He isn’t happy with the Western media painting him as a terrorist and wants to tell his side of the story.”
“He is a terrorist,” Clark said. “If he agrees to an interview on the expectation that you’ll write something he’ll approve of, you could be in danger.”
“And that's your idea of the good news? What’s the bad news?”
Lois glanced down at her plate then made herself meet his eyes. “They won’t negotiate a meeting by email or phone. They think it could be intercepted by their government. It has to be in person.”
Clark thought that over. “You have to go to Africa in order to negotiate the meeting?”
“Perry won't pay for that. Not unless you have a firm commitment first.”
“No. But Amal did say I could send someone to negotiate for me.”
“Oh. I see.” Clark grinned. “You want me to go, Superman-express.”
Lois smiled hopefully. “Well, Perry doesn’t have to know the details and it shouldn’t take long. Once we’ve confirmed the meeting, he’ll agree to pay the expenses. I know it’s a big ask...”
“No, it makes sense. If you have to negotiate with terrorists, send the guy they can’t hurt.”
Lois smiled. She knew Clark didn’t like her being on this story, and to his credit he had never tried to stop her from pursuing it. “Thanks, Clark.”
“What about Luthor? Has he confirmed your interview yet?”
“Tomorrow evening,” Lois agreed. “We’re expected at five for the photoshoot, and we’ll do the interview afterwards. There’s no problem with you coming along. He said he’s looking forward to meeting you.”
Lois knew Clark would hear the relief in her voice. She didn’t know why Lex creeped her out so much, but she absolutely didn’t want to be alone with him. If he had objected to Clark accompanying her to the interview, she would still have asked Clark to be nearby; that was how strongly she felt about Lex.
“I’m surprised he even recognises my name,” Clark commented.
“I think he’s one of those people who researches everything before he agrees to a meeting. You'll be free?”
“Of course I will.”
How do you ask someone if he tried to murder you last night? It wasn’t the kind of question that can casually drop into conversation. How ’bout those Broncos? It’s raining in Gotham. By the way, you didn’t happen to be in town last night when I nearly plummeted to my death, did ya?
Hard enough to ask that kind of question of an enemy. When it was a friend...well, former ally, anyway...it was much harder.
Bruce made the call from his office at Wayne Enterprises, framing it as one businessman to another. He couldn't think of a single reason for Oliver to be involved, but if he was, this might at least send the message that Bruce wasn't declaring war. Even then, he felt ridiculous asking the question.
But Oliver’s answer was instantly reassuring. “Bruce,” he said, and even through the phone Bruce could hear that he was grinning, “if I had a reason to want to kill you, I would not forego the pleasure of punching you in the face.”
Bruce chuckled with relief. “No, I guess you wouldn't. I didn't really think it was you. I just don't know anyone else in the world who could have taken that shot.”
“Why? What happened?” There was no laughter in Oliver’s voice now.
Bruce explained the ambush, from the breadcrumb trail that led him to the White Portuguese to the hood with the flamethrower on the roof, and his subsequent fall. He was able to leave out the part where Superman saved his ass because Oliver interrupted him.
“In the dark?” Oliver said sharply when Bruce described the shot that broke his batline.
“It was above a well-lit street, but yes, it was night.”
“Street lighting makes aiming tricky if you’re high up. The reflections can be deceptive. Was it raining?”
“No. Overcast but not wet.”
“Well, you're right, it's a nearly impossible shot. I think I could do it. But I didn't.”
“Who else could?”
“The only one I'm sure of is dead. A couple of the old League, maybe. No one who should be in this hemisphere. Are you sure it was an archer?”
“I have the arrow.”
“Why didn't you say so? Send me an image and your analysis of the materials. I'll identify your archer.”
“Thanks. I owe you one.”
“Good luck, Bruce. Watch your back. I don’t want you to die before I can call in the favour.”
They arrived at Lex Luthor’s mansion, a white-painted house of elegant curves, in two cars because Jimmy planned to leave when the photoshoot was over while Lois would stay to conduct her interview. That way, Jimmy could do the digital enhancement work on the photos and have a selection ready for Lois to consider while she wrote her first piece. Lois drove her own car, with Clark beside her.
Clark was curious about the young man who had so quickly become one of the most prominent leaders of Metropolis, and was looking forward to meeting him. He knew that Luthor’s father was a casualty of Zod’s invasion. Since his death, LexCorp had led the efforts to rebuild Metropolis. After the initial government-led efforts to recover survivors and the dead, and to make the damaged buildings safe, several prominent companies including LexCorp and Wayne Enterprises stepped in to organise a more extensive clearance and rebuilding. A recovery fund was established which organised donations of food and other essentials for citizens affected by the disaster, and Lex had donated generously from his personal wealth. LexCorp created jobs for people whose work had disappeared with the buildings and leased space at generous rates to companies displaced by the reconstruction work. It was unclear how much of that had been at Lex Luthor's instigation as he hadn't joined the LexCorp board until a few months after the invasion, but he had certainly led the publicity campaign currently running, designed to bring more business and investment to the city.
It was an impressive record for such a young man and it couldn't have been easy for him to have so much responsibility thrust on him when he was only twenty. Clark knew a little about how that felt.
On the other hand, Lois had very good instincts about people and she saw Luthor very differently. She hadn’t said she was afraid of him, but she didn’t want to do this interview without Clark being with her. He didn’t think he was there as her boyfriend this time. No, she wanted Superman close by, and that spoke volumes.
They were met at the door by Lex himself, who welcomed them like old friends. It was a bit over the top, as if he were on the wrong page of a script, and Clark began to see why Lois was wary of him.
It was Jimmy who got them on track, placing himself between Lois and Lex to explain how the photoshoot would work. He had a lot of lighting equipment and tripods, but he preferred to work in natural light and get pictures that were real, not posed.
Still, they did some studio shots first with Jimmy keeping up a constant stream of chatter to keep Lex focussed on him while Clark and Lois did their best to stay out of the way. When Jimmy was satisfied, he showed Lex the results on the small viewscreen on the back of the camera.
“I’ll do some digital enhancement back at the Planet,” he explained. “Nothing major, you don’t need it. Just some work on the lighting and contrast, maybe a little airbrushing if we’re going to do a full-page print. You’ll see.”
“That sounds fine,” Lex agreed.
“Now, let’s get some pictures of the real Lex Luthor. What do you do for fun?”
“I don’t know. I’m a bit of a nerd, really.”
“You look like you keep yourself fit. You work out?”
“Goodness, no. I run a little. Toss a ball around. There’s a basketball hoop in the back.”
Jimmy grinned. “That sounds perfect. Why don’t we head out there and toss a ball around?”
...Which was how Clark ended up playing basketball one-on-one against the wealthiest man in Metropolis. Jimmy danced around them, his camera constantly clicking. Lois watched from the sidelines and laughed every time Clark dropped the ball or fell over his own feet. Lex was a pretty good player and scored two baskets for each one Clark managed to sink. For Clark, the real challenge was making his fumbling about look real.
Eventually, Jimmy called a halt. “That’s great, guys. Take a look.” Once again, he offered the camera to Lex.
Clark, feigning being out of breath, moved closer so he could see the pictures as Jimmy scrolled through. Jimmy was good, and had framed Clark out of nearly every shot. He stopped at one which showed Lex with one arm outstretched, the ball just leaving his hand on its way to the basket. Lex’s eyes were on the ball, his expression intensely focussed.
“Look at that,” Jimmy grinned. “That’s the side of you I wanted to capture. Lex Luthor, reaching for the sky.”
Lex shrugged indifferently. “You’re the photographer.” He slapped Clark’s shoulder. “Good game, man.” He clapped his hands. “I guess I need to shower before we get down to the business of the evening. Unlike this guy - ” he jerked a thumb toward Clark, “ - I sweat when I work out.”
Yeah, that was hard to fake. Clark adjusted his glasses, half-turning away to hide the fact that Lex was exactly right: he didn’t break a sweat playing that game.
Lex beckoned and his dark-haired bodyguard, Ms Graves, approached them. “Show our friends inside, Mercy. I’ll join you as quickly as I can.”
Clark helped Jimmy pack away his equipment and then Jimmy headed out, leaving Clark and Lois alone in the room. It was a living room, Clark supposed, but it was bigger than his entire apartment. Couches were arranged in sections around the room, enough seating for thirty people, the television screen was almost big enough to make the room a cinema, and there was a well-stocked bar. Food had been laid out: the kind of canapes and petit fours served at cocktail parties.
Clark selected a couch and sat down in the middle of it, spreading his arms across the backrest. “He certainly lives well,” he remarked.
“He can afford to,” Lois agreed, sitting opposite him. “He seems lonely, though. I mean, look at this room.”
“All set to entertain a large group of friends,” Clark agreed, “but it’s pristine, hardly ever used.”
“He got a kick out of your basketball game.”
Clark gave a knowing smile. “I bet he did. I got my ass handed to me.”
“You need more practice, Clark,” Lois smiled back.
“Hm. I think I’m better off with athletics than contact sports.”
“Let me guess. High jump?” Lois said archly, then giggled.
Moments later, Lex reappeared. He had changed into a green and white striped t-shirt over white linen pants. He still wore the same battered Converse sneakers. No watch on his wrist, but he was wearing a signet ring on his right hand. Clark couldn’t recall if he’d been wearing the ring earlier.
Lex gave them both a wide smile. “And here we are again!” he announced, claiming a seat beside Lois. He leaned back into the soft leather. “So, it’s your show, Lois. I’m an open book.”
Lois was using her phone to record the interview, but she used a notebook and pen, too. She tapped the pen against her lips. “You are about to become CEO of LexCorp. It’s a Fortune 500 company with international reach and you’ve fought hard to get the CEO seat.”
“Yes. Yes, I did. The board were reluctant to trust the company to someone so young, but my father built LexCorp from nothing. He wanted me to take over and continue his work.”
“But isn’t that contrary to his will?” Lois pressed.
“No,” Lex snapped. “That’s one of the rumours I hope you’ll help me lay to rest. That will was written and filed when I was twelve, Lois. Of course I was too young then. My father made some small changes to the will last year, but I suppose he saw no reason to update the trust fund clause. After all, he was in excellent health.”
“So he told you he wanted you to take over.”
“That was what he always wanted, for me to be CEO after him. Now I am.”
“What are your plans for the company?”
“Well, in the short term LexCorp will be making some significant investments to secure the future of Metropolis. We’ve done great work rebuilding but there is so much more to be done.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“I want to bring more cutting edge technology and research into Metropolis,” Lex began. He played with the signet ring on his hand as he began to talk about his plans in more detail.
Clark tuned out what he was saying and focussed his hearing outside the mansion. It could be overwhelming: the city was so big and at any time, even at night, there were more people in need of help than he could possibly answer. He had learned to sort through the voices swiftly, to ignore most so that he could respond when he truly was needed. In doing so, he found that sometimes he could hear things far less distressing. He heard children playing a few miles away from the mansion: a good-natured argument over which of them would get to be Superman in their game. They settled it with a race and he heard the flapping of an improvised cape as their play-acting began in earnest. These were the things that reminded him he made the right choice: that no matter what the rich and powerful had to say, Superman was giving people hope, and something good to reach for.
That was when Clark felt a dart of pain across his eye and abruptly brought his attention back to the room he was in. He raised a hand to his forehead. His vision darkened and the pain came again. He closed his eyes and rubbed at his temple without thinking. He was not invulnerable to pain - if his body was damaged, he felt it, just like any human. But pain out of nowhere, with no apparent cause, was outside Clark’s experience.
Lois noticed him rubbing his temple. “Clark? Are you okay?”
He couldn’t fully explain with Luthor in the room. So Clark lowered his hand. “It’s just a headache,” he said, as if that was nothing. He tried to stand and felt a rush of vertigo. “I think I need to get some air.”
He saw Lois’s look as he passed her. She was thinking that Clark intended to fly off, when he had promised her he wouldn’t leave her alone with Lex Luthor. He would explain later.
One of Lex’s security people followed him at a discreet distance as Clark headed to the back of the house. Once he was outside, he began to feel better. The pain was gone, and the weird feeling of vertigo faded more slowly. It was disturbing because he didn't understand it. He couldn’t recall ever feeling like that before. His powers made him appear sick a lot during his childhood, when something was so overwhelming he couldn’t handle it, but those episodes always had an explanation. Clark never caught human diseases and had yet to discover any kind of toxin or poison that affected him. He couldn't even get drunk.
Except whatever was in the air in the first few days after he defeated Zod. Clark still wasn’t sure what that had been. Some kind of pollution thrown off by the Kryptonian ships, Lois had guessed. He had been unwell for a few days: easily tired, some trouble breathing when he flew too high; but then it cleared and he’d more or less forgotten about it.
That didn’t explain why he felt ill now, nor why he recovered so quickly.
Conscious that Lois believed she was alone, although he was still listening in, making sure she was okay as he promised, Clark returned to the room. They had covered almost everything on Lois’s list of topics; she should have more than enough material for the series Perry wanted to publish.
Lois looked up as he entered the room, and Clark could see she was angry with him for leaving. She said nothing, though.
“There’s just one more thing I want to talk about, Lex. You weren’t in Metropolis on the day of the invasion, were you?”
“No.” The word was clipped, a warning that she was close to something he did not want to talk about. “I was at school. Harvard, of course.” He made a dismissive sound. “CalTech was my choice, but of course it had to be Harvard.”
“Could you tell me about that day, from your perspective?”
He rose from the couch and walked a few steps away from her. “A college campus is like a world of its own. That’s one reason I didn’t go back. When that alien message was broadcast, I thought - we all thought - that it was a prank. It wasn’t until the attack on Metropolis started that I knew it was real. If I’d believed it earlier, I might have headed home and...” he gave an odd laugh. “But I didn’t and I’m here to talk about it.”
He turned to face Lois. “I came home as soon as the flight ban was lifted. This house wasn’t touched, of course, but I never thought of this as home. Home was the city, and that’s gone. We can rebuild it, but it will never be the same.”
He hadn’t mentioned his father, Clark noticed. He knew the impact losing his own father had on him. There were some parallels with him and Lex, though he would never have said so out loud. He was close to Lex’s age when it happened, and both of their fathers died in major disasters. He thought Lex’s focus on the fact that he hadn't been at home might suggest some degree of survivor’s guilt; the difference was that Clark knew he could have saved his father. For him it had been a choice. Lex couldn’t have made a difference if he had been there.
Lois had noticed the omission, too, but she didn’t pursue it. That was unlike her, and she must have a reason.
“It won’t be the same,” she agreed, “but it can be better.”
Lex snapped his fingers. “That’s the plan, Lois. You’ve seen the campaign to bring more investment into the city, but that’s just the start. There is so much opportunity if we just have the courage to take it!” He snatched at thin air as he spoke, illustrating his words.
Lois jerked back from the gesture. Clark stayed where he was with an effort.
Lex laughed. “Oh, did I scare you?”
“You startled me.” Lois reached for her phone and looked across to Clark, who nodded. They had stayed long enough.
“I think I have more than enough for one interview, Lex. Thank you very much for your time.”
“I enjoyed our evening together.” Lex rose from the couch and as he did, the door opened and Mercy Graves slipped inside. The timing was too perfect; she had been listening.
“Mr Luthor,” she said simply.
“Yes, I’m ready. Please show my guests to their car.”
As soon as they were through the gate, Clark said, “I know you think I left you, but I didn’t. I wasn’t faking, Lois.”
She took her eyes off the road to glance at him quickly. “Then what happened?”
“I don't know. My head hurt and I felt dizzy. Just for a couple of minutes. I feel fine now.”
“Did something trigger it?”
“Nothing I noticed. It couldn’t have been something in the room because we were there earlier and I was fine. I didn’t eat or drink anything. I don’t know, Lois.”
She was silent for a moment, her eyes fixed on the road ahead. “Well, I was upset when I thought you were making an excuse to fly off somewhere, but I also knew you wouldn’t do that without a good reason. We’re okay, Clark. And if you feel fine now...I guess we just wait and see if it happens again?”
There wasn't much else he could do. It wasn’t as if he could go see a doctor for reassurance. “I agree.”
She turned the car onto the highway that would take them back to the city. “What did you make of Lex Luthor?”
Clark knew that question was coming and he wasn’t sure it was wise to give her an honest answer. But he couldn’t lie to Lois. “I think he’s a dangerous man.”
Once again, she turned to stare at him. “Dangerous?”
“You were there, Lois.”
“Yes, he’s a bit weird and he’s got a ruthless streak, but why dangerous? Why that word?”
Clark looked at the road ahead of them, marshalling his thoughts. “If someone asked you about my relationship with my father, how much could you tell them?”
Lois answered quickly. “I know he loved you. And you love him. I know you feel guilty about his death and you will probably always blame yourself for that. I know he did his best to protect you, that he wasn’t always right but he wanted the best for you.”
Clark smiled. “You never knew him, but you have a sense of who he was, right?”
“Lex gave me no sense at all of who his father was. He seems to talk about him a lot but there's no content to it. He never said Dad or Pop or any of the words children use for their fathers. He doesn’t even call him by name. Just ‘my father’ as if the man had no existence other than to sire a son.”
“He wasn’t exactly father of the year, Clark.”
“But they had a relationship. Good or bad, he should have been an influence on his son’s life. You asked him about the day his father died and he didn’t even mention it. He talked about his college campus and the city. Not the people who died. And there’s something else.”
“When I got that headache, both of you noticed, but he didn’t react. You did. You were annoyed with me, but you still asked if I was okay even though you know I don’t get sick. Luthor doesn’t know that, but he showed no concern at all. He looked at me like I was a lab rat.”
Lois frowned. “You’re saying he has no empathy.”
“Exactly. There’s a word for that: psychopath. And with the kind of money and power he has, that makes him very dangerous.”
“That’s not a story I can print,” Lois said.
“I wasn’t suggesting you should. Perry would say the Planet can’t afford that lawsuit and I’m afraid he’s right. You’d have to have an absolutely airtight case before you could print it. But I understand why you wanted me with you tonight.”
Lois smiled. “I’m really glad you were there. Jimmy owes you a favour, too. Do you want to head straight home, or shall we go somewhere? I don’t have to start work on the profile until morning.”
“If you think you can manage to go a whole evening without working, I think we should go straight home. Maybe stop for take out and some wine.”
“Promise you won’t fly anywhere?”
“Tonight, my love, I’m all yours.”
Lex poured a glass of bourbon and drank it straight down. He sat in his father’s leather chair and carefully worked the signet ring from his finger. He held it up before his eyes and turned it over. Beneath the signet was a tiny catch that sprang open at his touch, revealing the glowing green stone within. When the signet was closed, the kryptonite was entirely enclosed in a thin layer of lead. All Lex had needed to do was crack it open and the effect on Clark Kent was immediate.
He hadn’t needed further proof that Kent was Superman. The information Bruce Wayne unwittingly provided him when Lex hacked into his server was more than enough. But Lex had needed to be sure that this alien mineral would indeed affect Superman. It worked better than he hoped.
Now he had a larger supply of kryptonite and that would allow him to work on more detailed experiments. There were so many wonderful possibilities! But the key fact was now confirmed: he had a weapon to use against Superman.
It was a pity his efforts across the bay had been less successful, but the unexpected success of his kryptonite gave him an idea for a different approach. He closed his fist around the ring and squeezed hard. He would succeed.
And when Bruce Wayne and the Batman were dead, Gotham’s underworld would be his for the taking.
Superman rose swiftly into the sky above the Nairomi desert. There were no clouds here to shield him from view but he didn't want to wait for dark. So he flew quickly, straight up, until the punishing heat gave way to freezing air at altitude, and further into the very edge of the atmosphere. There was very little air to breathe here, but enough that he was still comfortable. From there he could circle the Earth unseen until he saw the familiar coast of North America below. It didn't take long. He turned and flew downward, exerting almost no effort as the Earth’s gravity did most of the work for him, until he slowed his descent over the Metropolis bay and flew toward the city. Here, he flew more slowly, letting himself be seen as he entered the city itself. He flew among the skyscrapers, past the Daily Planet offices to confirm that Lois wasn’t there. Jimmy was, and Superman heard the click of his camera as the young photographer saw him fly past. That was what made Jimmy such a great photo journalist: he was quick to grasp each chance and he could frame a perfect shot quickly. Maybe not every shot came out, but enough did.
He flew onward and saw with no surprise that Lois was watching for him from her apartment window. He was a little late, but it had been necessary to take the extra time in Nairomi.
“You’re late!” she accused, before his feet touched the rug.
“I know.” He took in her appearance quickly: not just her expression but all the other little physiological clues to her mood. Any hope he might have entertained that he could talk her out of doing this interview vanished. Not that he had much hope to begin with. Lois was on the scent of a huge story; she would pursue it with the same dogged determination with which she pursued him before he was Superman.
“Please don’t keep me waiting.”
“It’s fine, Lois. The meeting is on, and I’ve got all the information. Give me a moment to ditch the cape and I’ll tell you everything.”
She was impatient, but Clark could be stubborn too and he would do this in his way. So as he relaxed into a corner of the couch, he affected a casual tone and asked, “Tell me, Lois, why does Amal think you're a man?”
She coloured and he knew the answer.
Lois said, “He assumed. I didn’t correct him. Did you tell him?”
Clark already regretted not correcting that assumption, but he shook his head. “No, but you won’t be able to keep up the pretence, Lois.”
“I know that. But - ”
“Let me finish. One of the conditions of the meeting is you have to wear appropriate clothing. They expect you to blend in with their own people. For a woman, that means a hijab.”
She made a face but said, “I figured. That’s okay.”
“No, it’s not. Because if you’re unaccompanied, in that culture, that sends a signal. You’d be deliberately putting yourself in danger before you even meet the General.”
She dropped her gaze and Clark knew she had already thought of that. Damn her!
“It’s my job, Clark. Are you going to ask me not to go?”
“If I thought you’d listen to me, I would. Alright, here’s the deal. You are allowed to bring a photographer but cameras have to be film. Nothing digital. No cell phones or digital recording devices. Nothing with GPS. Since the General is considered a fugitive they will kill you if you violate that rule.”
Lois nodded. “I expected that. It’s fine. Jimmy and I have worked like that before.”
“They want you to check in to a specific hotel and wait to be contacted. No set date for the meeting, they’ll show up when they’re ready and take you to the compound. You’ll meet with the General and they will take you back afterward. You are required to leave the country immediately.”
“That won’t be feasible unless we charter a flight. We could do that, though. A charter won’t break the budget. Head for Johannesburg and fly back to the US from there.”
Clark nodded. “There was more, but that’s the essentials. I’ve got it all written down for you.”
“Thank you. I’m really grateful you - ”
“I’m not done. I flew over the compound while I was out there.”
“Honestly, I’m afraid for you, Lois. He has some very sophisticated weaponry there. Not just guns and bombs. They’ve got drones. Their power supply is patchy so they can’t use them but they’re working on that. I couldn’t say for sure from the air but I think a lot of it is American made. He’s got backing from someone with a lot of money to waste.”
“We know he has good weapons, but US backing? That’s news, Clark. Are we talking CIA?”
“I couldn’t tell you based on what I could see from the air. If you ask him that...”
“Clark, this isn’t my first day. I know there are some questions I can’t ask. What about the people at the compound?”
“About a hundred, mostly men. Not all of them are there willingly. He raids the surrounding villages for slaves.”
“I know,” Lois said, her voice softer. “I have reports from a few people in the area. It’s one of the things I can safely expose, after the interview.”
Clark said nothing, but it was an effort.
“What’s your plan?” she asked.
“I’m not letting you go in there unprotected. I’m serious, Lois. I saw enough to be certain it’s too dangerous. But I know you need to do this, so I’ll keep my distance unless you need help.” Until you need help, he wanted to say, but bit back that impulse. She wasn’t ready to hear him.
“Okay. I’ll talk to Perry tomorrow.”
Jimmy left the Daily Planet offices that evening feeling super-pumped. He would have the opportunity to photograph General Amajagh, one of the most controversial figures on the world stage since Arafat died. Terrorist or freedom fighter? Perhaps neither, perhaps both. Lois had scored an amazing scoop, and Jimmy was going with her!
He took the metro home and bought a bucket of fried chicken from the take-out at the station exit. He picked out one chicken piece and tucked the bucket under his arm. Biting into the hot chicken, he glanced around the street, taking in the familiar scene: the teenagers hanging out on fire escapes; the winos among dumpsters in the alley below; the newsagent on the corner; people on the streets, going about their usual business.
Even in a city as prosperous as Metropolis, there were poor areas. This was one of them. Most of the people living there were minimum-wage workers. The majority were first or second generation immigrants. The people were poor, but it was a good neighbourhood. People talked to each other and helped each other out. The mix of cultures fascinated Jimmy and he had lots of opportunities to learn other languages and customs. He loved living here. But where there’s poverty, there is crime, and in this area, Jimmy was rich. He had been robbed several times on his way home, so he was vigilant when he walked these streets. He noticed the black sedan parked across the street from the metro station, because it was much too nice for this area: shiny, with tinted windows. He noticed the man in the leather coat leaning against the wall near the newsagent’s booth, probably convinced he was inconspicuous. He guessed they were waiting for someone.
Jimmy’s Nikon was locked up safely at the Daily Planet, but he had a camera on his smartphone that was good enough. He had taken photographs before when there was trouble on the streets. Occasionally he captured a story worth following up. More often his pictures had been useful to the police. If something was about to happen here, it was worth a shot or two. Jimmy wiped chicken off his fingers and slipped his hand into his pocket for the phone.
That was when the sedan across the street started to move and someone bumped into Jimmy from behind. His phone flew from his hand. Someone grabbed his arm before he could reach for it.
“No sudden moves, Mr Olsen,” a female voice said, her grip on his elbow like iron.
Something that could only be the barrel of a gun pressed into Jimmy’s side. It wasn’t the first time he’d been on the wrong end of a gun, so Jimmy didn’t panic. He did freeze in place. “Who are you?”
The sedan pulled alongside Jimmy and his captor.
“Get in, Mr Olsen.”
“No fucking way,” he scoffed, in spite of the gun. At least in a public street he had witnesses.
Someone inside the sedan opened its rear door.
The gun pressed more firmly into his side. “Get in, Mr Olsen. No harm will come to you.”
“Says the lady with a gun on me,” he pointed out, but he knew he was pushing his luck. Reluctantly, he got into the car. As he climbed in, the woman took his bucket of chicken and slammed the door behind him.
“Hey!” Jimmy protested automatically. He went for the door handle, intent on getting his supper back. There was a click as the lock engaged, trapping him inside the car. “Shit!”
Jimmy turned to see who was in the car with him. “This was a hell of a lot of trouble just to steal my food,” he grumbled. “What the hell is going on?”
He was looking at a bald, African-American man wearing a dark business suit. The man took an ID wallet from his pocket, flipped it open and silently offered it to Jimmy.
Jimmy took the ID and examined the contents. It looked authentic and it identified the man as Agent Thomas Lauder, Central Intelligence Agency. Jimmy swallowed, his throat dry.
“Y-you’re CIA?” he croaked.
“I am.” The car moved into the normal traffic flow and Lauder extended a hand for his ID. “Are you ready to serve your country, Mr Olsen?”
Jimmy knew this had to be connected with his trip to Nairomi with Lois. General Amajagh had not attacked on US soil, but the US did consider him a terrorist and several Americans had died in bombings attributed to him abroad.
Jimmy met the agent’s eyes and answered cautiously. “I’m a journalist. I’d say that is serving the American people.”
“We need you to serve a little more directly.”
Jimmy snorted. “Sure you do.” Where were they taking him? He looked out of the car windows, and they were still in his neighbourhood. Fat lot of good that would do him when he couldn’t get out of the damned car.
“We know about your arrangements in Nairomi.”
Jimmy nodded. “Yeah, I figured. Whatever you want, you can forget about it. I’m not going to put my partner’s life at risk. Not for anything.”
Agent Lauder said quietly, “You’ll be protecting her, Mr Olsen. Do you know how many journalists have been kidnapped by these groups?”
Jimmy hesitated. “General Amajagh doesn’t use kidnapping, of journalists or otherwise,” he objected.
“He hasn’t yet,” Lauder corrected, “but then, this will be the first time a prominent American journalist has put herself in such a vulnerable position. Are you aware of how Amajagh’s people treat women?”
“Yeah.” Jimmy looked down. He did know, and so did Lois. She wasn’t afraid, and she should be. He sighed. “What is it you want?”
“He isn’t going to let us know where he is.”
“You’ll be taking a camera with you, will you not?”
Jimmy saw where this was going. “Yes, but we’ve been told nothing digital will be allowed.” A digital camera recorded metadata with each shot that included time and place. A good digital camera, like Jimmy’s Nikon, could record the location precisely. But he wouldn’t have that option.
“You’ll be using thirty-five millimetre film,” Lauder said.
Lauder produced a small box and offered it to Jimmy. “Four rolls of film. Each contains a tracking device that’s entirely inert until it’s activated. Undetectable.”
Jimmy took the box, handling it like it was about to explode. “You can’t possibly guarantee that,” he objected.
“Mr Olsen, you’re going to Nairomi. It’s not exactly Silicon Valley. Our technology is the best in the world.”
That was true. Jimmy opened the box and took out one of the film cartridges. Thirty five millimetre, film speed 400 ISO. It looked like a regular cartridge.
“How do I activate it?”
“Very simple. Load the film into the camera. It’s real and you can use it. Once it’s in the camera, the transponder will activate. If the General’s word is good, he lets you go and we know where he is. If, as seems more likely, you don’t return from his compound, we will be able to find you.”
Jimmy put the film back into the box. He knew he should refuse. It was too dangerous. The trip was risky enough without adding this. But he thought of Lois and her reckless confidence. He thought of what could happen to her if she were wrong.
“What do you say, Mr Olsen?”
He nodded. “Alright.”
When Lauder let him out of the car, they were right outside his apartment.
The hotel room had a balcony, but there wasn’t much of a view. All Lois could see was the shanty town that had grown up in the wreck of the city: tin and steel shelters among the bombed-out ruins. Beyond that, there was only sand. She adjusted the neckline of her blouse and wished Amajagh’s people had chosen a hotel that had air conditioning. She was wearing her lightest clothing: cotton slacks and a loose-fitting blouse, and it was still too hot. She ran her fingers through her auburn hair, combing it into a rough ponytail and pulled a band from her pocket to tie it. That would help a little, but she had to get out of the sun. Her fair skin couldn’t handle it for too long even with her best sunscreen.
Jimmy was sitting on the other bed, unloading his camera bag. He had packed all his usual gear, including the digital Nikon he was banned from taking to General Amajagh’s compound, but he also had an old manual camera. He took it out and screwed in a telephoto lens.
Jimmy pointed the camera at the wall. “My dad gave this camera to me for my eighteenth birthday. My first real SLR.” He pressed the shutter. The click was very loud.
“It’s a very photogenic wall,” Lois commented.
He grinned. “I haven’t loaded the film yet. Just checking the mechanics. It’s been a while since I’ve worked with film and longer since I used this baby, but you don’t forget your first.” He patted the lens and removed it from the camera body. He packed everything, including several rolls of film, into a padded bag.
Lois sat down on her bed. “I hate this waiting.” She reached for her wallet and extracted some cash and travellers’ cheques. “I’m going down to that little cafe.” She was dying for a cold drink.
“Just a moment. I’ll come with you,” Jimmy offered.
Jimmy slung the camera bag over his shoulder and placed himself between Lois and the door. “Lois, you’re an amazing woman, but in this country if you go out there alone, dressed like that, you’re fair game. How about you wait until after the interview to piss on their rules?”
Lois knew he was right, but as much as she understood the need to respect the culture of the country she was in, it was hard to give in to rules she considered idiotic at best. She had reported from Iraq. She had been embedded with a battalion in Afghanistan. She did it all without pretending to be something she wasn’t.
But Jimmy was right. Lois picked up a headscarf and covered her hair, though in a style that owed more to 1950’s Vogue than to Islam. “Good enough?”
Jimmy shrugged. “Better button your blouse, too.”
In Metropolis, she would have punched him for that. Reluctantly, she buttoned the blouse to the neck and walked around him to the door.
The cafe was on the ground floor of the hotel, and had clearly once been a bar. No alcohol was served any more, of course, but they did have a range of cold drinks and ice. They ordered drinks and chose a table in the shade. Lois got out her notebook and began making some notes about her impressions of Nairomi.
In the capital, the presence of the military had been very obvious. There were armed men on every street, the blue berets of the UN forces mingling with the black of the new army that served the recently elected regime. That election was disputed, but the streets of the capital were peaceful, even if it was an armed peace. In the brief time they were there, Lois had seen women in bright dresses and headscarves carrying baskets and children on their hips as they walked the streets. She saw men in white jubbas and kufis driving to offices and boys playing games on street corners. It was no idyll, but the city showed a country bouncing back from Nairomi’s devastating civil war.
Outside the capital, what she saw was very different. Most of the population lived in small villages, scratching out a subsistence living from poisoned earth. There were herds of cattle and goats watched by men with missing limbs and children with haunted eyes. Women in the villages wore plain colours and covered their faces as well as their hair.
These were the people General Amajagh claimed to represent. In his version of the story, an illegitimate government stole the people’s livelihood in the name of taxation and gave them nothing in return. Having seen the land, if only from the window of a bus, Lois had some sympathy with the argument. She wasn’t sure how bombing embassies and tourist areas was supposed to help, though.
Finished, for the time being, Lois pocketed the notebook and finished her second drink.
“We’re being watched, Lois,” Jimmy said quietly.
That wasn’t surprising, but the warning immediately made Lois tense up. “Tell me,” she whispered back.
“Man in a ghutra across the street. White guy in uniform at the bar. Possibly the barkeep but he might just be watching you.”
“It’s not a bar. No alcohol.” She couldn’t see either of the men Jimmy described from where she sat. She scanned the other tables and the part of the street she could see. “Another man in the corner,” she whispered, “maybe. I haven’t been paying attention. Should we wait?”
“They could be government,” Jimmy suggested. “They shouldn’t know why we’re here.”
“Or they could be his people.”
“If they are, we have to wait for their move.”
Lois nodded. “Maybe if we - ” She broke off as another man approached their table.
This man was quite young, his skin very dark, his hair shaved very short. He wore what in the US she would have pegged as army surplus: combat pants, t-shirt and a utility vest. Here, it probably wasn’t surplus, but she saw no visible indications that he was in the army: no insignia or badges. He didn’t even look at Lois but addressed Jimmy.
“Are you Lane?” He spoke with a heavy accent, but Lois understood him.
Jimmy looked at Lois, surprised.
Lois said, “I’m Lois Lane. This is my colleague and photographer, James Olsen.”
The man looked at her as if she were a talking dog or some such. “You’re Lane?”
“Would you like to see my passport?”
“No. If you lie, you won’t last long. I am Amal. You both come with me now.”
Lois felt her heart speed up. “I need to change my clothing.” She had been instructed to wear appropriate clothing and had an abaya and hijab in her luggage. She knew very well the token headscarf she was wearing didn’t qualify as appropriate.
“No!” Amal snapped. “You come now, or no meeting.”
Well, if he insisted... Lois stood. “We’re ready.”
Jimmy picked up his camera bag. “Yep. Ready.”
Amal led them to a shed on the outskirts of the shanty town Lois had observed earlier. Inside it was dark, hot and stuffy. More men with guns were waiting. They held an angry conversation, speaking rapidly in a language Lois didn’t understand. She glanced at Jimmy who shook his head slightly. He knew some African languages, but not whatever they were speaking.
Finally, one man pointed an automatic rifle at Lois, jerking it to indicate she should move. Her mouth dry, she took a single step in the direction she thought he wanted. He shouted something and repeated the gesture. She moved more quickly, ending up in the corner of the dark shack. He spoke again, in a milder tone. She wasn’t certain, but she thought he was telling her to stay put. She bowed her head to indicate acquiescence and he turned his back on her, apparently satisfied.
Meanwhile another man searched Jimmy, rough but thorough. He was clearly looking for bugs, not weapons, because he checked everything, even emptying Jimmy's wallet before replacing everything and returning it. Jimmy, Lois noticed, had left his credit cards back at their hotel room. He must have expected this.
Jimmy’s camera bag was next, and Lois saw him tense as the man dumped everything onto the dusty floor. Now that she knew the camera had sentimental value to him Lois understood his tension. As hardware it was old and expendable, but it was more than hardware to Jimmy. If they damaged it, a gift from his father couldn’t be replaced. She watched the man open up the camera and again, noticing that Jimmy had not yet loaded it with film, was surprised he had anticipated this so well. She expected to be searched, but not like this.
Amal returned with a woman who was wearing a full burqa, only her eyes and hands visible. She hesitated, then made toward Lois, and Lois understood. They wanted a woman to search her. She was grateful, and some of her fear receded: if these men were willing to show her this much respect, there was a good chance her sex wouldn’t be the disadvantage that both Jimmy and Clark feared. She carried nothing except her notebook and cash in her pockets. She handed both over without resistance and submitted to the woman’s search. They were watched by the men, but the silent woman stood in such a way as to shield Lois from their eyes as much as she could. Lois would have allowed one of the men to do it - what choice did she have? - but when the woman checked even her bra for hidden devices she was glad she didn’t have to. When the search was completed, Lois straightened her clothing and made sure the scarf still covered her hair. The woman spoke quietly to one of the men, returned Lois’s notebook and money to her, and left the shack.
Amal gestured for Lois to come forward. With some relief, she returned to Jimmy’s side.
“Why did you not say you are woman?” Amal’s written English was perfect: they had been exchanging emails for months, but his speech was more stilted.
Lois tried to look confused. “You didn’t ask, and I thought you knew. My profile is on the Daily Planet website.” It was truth, as far as it went, but she had known he thought she was male and intentionally never corrected his assumption.
She was surprised when he nodded and apparently accepted her explanation. “Long drive to compound. You need drink first?”
“No, thank you.”
“Then come now.” Amal led them from the shack. There was a truck waiting, an off-road Jeep with the rear flatbed covered with a canvas roof, like a troop carrier. Lois was led to the cab, Jimmy to the rear. It would not be a comfortable ride for him, but Jimmy shrugged off her apologetic look. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d travelled like this.
As she reached for the Jeep’s door, Lois looked up at the sky. She saw no sign of Superman. Was he close by? He had no way to let her know, but she trusted Clark. For all that she had insisted on her independence, she would have been much more afraid without his protection. She smiled at the apparently empty sky and climbed into the Jeep.
An hour’s drive from the town, Lois could see nothing but rocky desert scrub in all directions. That was when they stopped, and she was given a thick black hood and told to put it on. She didn’t like making herself even more vulnerable, and the heat inside the Jeep was already stifling, but she had no choice. She covered her head with the sack and was immediately plunged into thick darkness. She had never been claustrophobic, but this was horrible. The Jeep began to move again and now she had only the vaguest sense of their direction. Sound did penetrate through the hood, but other than the engine of the Jeep there was little sound to guide her. The ominous cries of vultures and the more familiar barking of dogs. Once, a gunshot.
She had long given up on trying to remember anything of their route or even how long they had been driving when she heard the rumble of another vehicle joining them on the road. Not long after, the Jeep slowed almost to a crawl and she heard shouting in that unfamiliar language. The crunch of boots on gravel and another sound she took to be a heavy gate opening. Moments later, the Jeep stopped moving.
The Jeep door beside her opened and rough hands dragged Lois from the vehicle. She stifled her impulse to protest and did her best to cooperate - not easy when she couldn’t see where she was going. She was held by two men, one gripping each of her arms, effectively preventing her from removing the black hood. She stumbled on the uneven ground, unable to find balance as they dragged her forward. All around her men were talking and she couldn’t understand a word. She was completely vulnerable, helpless, and she hated it.
They came to a stop and hands pressed on her head and shoulders. She resisted for an instant and a man shouted angrily. Something hit her hard behind her knees and she crashed to the ground, no choice but to kneel because her legs buckled under her. Someone ripped the hood from her head and the desert sun dazzled her eyes painfully. She closed them automatically, realised her mistake and forced her eyes open.
Lois was kneeling in front of a man she instantly recognised as the General. He wore the uniform of the army that no longer, technically, existed. His dark eyes met hers then swept down, taking in the shirt now damp with sweat, the cotton pants stretched tightly across her thighs. A smile spread over his features.
“They did not tell me,” he said, in perfect, only lightly accented English, “that the interview would be with a lady.”
“I’m not a lady, I’m a journalist,” Lois shot back. It was such an automatic response she didn’t even think about it. If he’d said woman, it wouldn’t have triggered her like that. But lady was a word she had fought against all her career. It meant weak, fragile, lesser. It meant unworthy. She could not accept that word being applied to her, not even if it were meant as a compliment. Perhaps especially not then.
General Amajagh smiled as if her reply amused him. With nothing more than a flick of his eyes, he signalled to the men who still held Lois’s arms. They released her instantly.
Lois didn’t get up, assuming that would give offence. She fumbled for the scarf that had fallen to her shoulders during the drive and fixed it over her hair again. She glanced around, searching for Jimmy. She found him quickly, no worse for the long drive, the old camera hanging on a strap around his neck. He offered her an encouraging smile.
Lois’s eyes took in the other men around them and she felt the first stirrings of real fear. She was good at her job because she noticed things other people might miss. She noticed quickly. There were eight men, excluding Jimmy, who she could see from where she stood. They wore a mixture of quasi-military uniforms and traditional Islamic garb, but all of them were caucasian. Until that moment, everyone she had seen connected with General Amajagh was black. A single white face, or even two or three, she might have dismissed, but all of them? This was wrong.
She looked at Jimmy, trying to signal with her eyes, but he gave no sign he saw anything unusual. Damn it. She turned back to the General.
“Please,” he gestured to the empty ground between them. “Ask me anything you wish.”
Lois pulled the notebook from her pocket. “I suppose the obvious question is, are you a terrorist, General Amajagh? The Nairomi government says you are.”
“What I am,” he answered, speaking slowly, as if weighing his words carefully, “is a man with a deep love of his country. The government you speak of is the puppet of our enemies, corrupt and illegitimate. Surely you know this.”
There was a lot to probe in that statement. Lois tackled the facts she knew first. “There were UN observers in Nairomi during the election. There were concerns about the results in some areas, but overall they reported a fair ballot. You disagree?”
“I do,” he said emphatically. “There was nothing democratic about it. They used every dirty trick - ” he broke off, looking past Lois.
She turned around, swivelling on her knees in time to see one of the General’s guards open Jimmy’s camera.
“No, don’t!” Jimmy tried to stop him as he pulled the roll of film from the camera.
Immediately, six guns were pointed at Jimmy. He froze, the open camera still around his neck. Slowly, he raised his hands, showing his empty palms.
The man who held his film pulled it from the reel, exposing the film to the desert sun and ruining any images Jimmy had already taken.
Lois wanted to object. She was allowed to bring a photographer. She had been assured photographs would be permitted! But the guns kept her silent.
The empty reel was thrown to the sand and crushed beneath a booted heel. Then the man bent down and picked something out of the shattered plastic.
Lois’s stomach twisted into a tight, painful knot. Oh, god, Jimmy. What have you done?
She couldn’t see what the man held, but he displayed it for the other men to see.
He said flatly, “CIA.”
Lois felt the blood drain from her face. It couldn’t be true, but it wouldn’t matter. Just the accusation was enough.
General Amajagh barked an order she didn’t comprehend and rough hands took hold of Lois again. This time, she struggled, but she was on her knees, and no match for their strength. “No! No, don’t!” she cried, not even sure what she meant.
Jimmy shouted something in what Lois thought was the same language the men around them had used. She stared at him, shocked that he knew the language at all.
Then he added, in English, “It’s okay, Lois.”
“No!” she screamed. They dragged her away. Behind her, she heard a single gunshot and the terrifying thud of a body hitting the ground. No scream of pain.
The men tossed her unceremoniously into what looked like an empty storage room and left her there. Lois scrambled to her feet, breathing hard. She ran to the door. It wouldn’t open. She stepped back and shook herself out of her panic. She was locked in. If Jimmy was still alive, she couldn’t do anything to help him. She had to take care of herself.
Lois felt pain in her knees and bent to examine herself. Sharp stones had cut through her flimsy pants at the knees and grazed her skin. There was a little blood, but nothing to worry about. Her arms were bruised from the hands of Amajagh’s men, and her heart was still beating fit to burst out of her chest. But she was okay.
There was a tracking device hidden in Jimmy’s camera. Had he known? Surely he wouldn’t have done something so stupid?
The door was flung open and General Amajagh walked in. Fury was in every movement of his body, in his piercing, dark eyes. He had a gun in one hand. He advanced on her.
Before he could speak, Lois blurted out, “I didn’t know!”
Truth. And cowardice.
He pointed the gun at her head. “Ignorance,” he said, “is not the same as innocence.”
Lois tried to speak but her mouth was too dry. Her legs felt like jelly. Any moment now, she was going to piss herself. She was that scared. She had always thrived on adrenaline, but not this time. He was going to kill her: it was in his eyes. The only question was what he would do to her first.
The roof collapsed in a cloud of dust. Amajagh grabbed Lois, spinning her around and pulling her tight against his body. She grabbed the arm he curled around her neck, clinging desperately for balance even as she felt the cold barrel of the gun against her temple.
And then the dust cleared.
And she saw him rise slowly, as if there were all the time in the world, dust cascading off the scarlet cape as he straightened.
In her terror, she had somehow forgotten him. Superman. Clark. She had a gun to her head, but she wasn’t afraid any more.
Superman looked past her to the General. He didn’t speak a word. He didn’t have to.
“Take one step, and you will see the inside of her skull,” Amajagh threatened. Lois knew he was terrified. She could feel him shaking.
And she knew that, as real as his threat was, it meant nothing. There were at least three ways Clark could stop him, and he was faster than a bullet, faster than human thought.
She was still holding Amajagh’s arm, trying to pull his forearm away from her throat. She looked at Clark and lowered her hands.
She felt a sudden wind, and both men were gone. So was the wall behind her.
Only a short time passed before Superman returned for her, but to Lois it was an eternity. Safe behind stone walls she heard the roar of automatic gunfire, men shouting in anger and in pain, engine noise, and more sounds she could not identify. The battle was brief, but it sounded brutal. Lois sank to the floor, hugging herself as her body finally reacted to the stress and adrenaline. She almost died. If Clark hadn’t been there...if he had been even a few seconds later... Lois touched her own wrist, seeking her pulse and found it much too rapid. She forced herself to breathe slowly, deeply, trying to calm the scream rising into her throat. Panic would do her no good.
Then she felt the warmth of his cape envelop her, and Superman’s arm around her shaking shoulders. She let herself fall against him and felt her panic recede. She was safe.
Superman’s lips brushed her temple. “Can you stand?”
“I...I think so.”
He stood and held out both of his hands. She slipped her hands into his and he pulled her upright. His expression was very grim, but he cupped her cheek with one large hand. With his thumb, he wiped away tears Lois hadn’t realised were there.
“Jimmy?” she asked.
“I think he’ll be okay. He’s hurt, but...”
She almost collapsed again. “Oh, thank God. Or, thank you. I heard the shot but couldn’t see...”
“It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.” He scooped her up into his arms and carried her, so smoothly he had to be flying, into the sunlight.
Clark set Lois down gently, on her feet beside the Jeep. He had left Jimmy inside it, injured, but not in danger.
This had been too close. Flying above the compound, watching and hearing everything, Clark held back from interfering because he knew that if Lois thought he was being over-protective, it would ruin their relationship. So when the guard found the tracker in Jimmy's camera, when everything started to happen so very fast, Clark was forced to make a choice. And there was no choice at all, not really. There was a bullet already flying toward Jimmy’s head.
So he saved Jimmy first, blocking the path of the bullet and knocking him down while still in flight, and back into the air before any of them, Jimmy included, could register what had happened. He hovered over the compound, as the men reacted and Jimmy looked up. And in those few seconds Lois vanished from his sight.
Superman found her quickly. Seeing Amajagh point a gun at her face brought back a rage he thought he had conquered. It was the same thing he felt when Zod’s people threatened his mother and then, he destroyed half of Smallville before he got control of his anger. This time, at least, he was better prepared for it.
Amajagh’s threat meant nothing. But when Lois lowered her hands, showing him what to do - in effect, giving him permission - Superman acted. For him, it was a series of discrete actions, entirely under control. Fly forward. Grab the man in flight. Turn as they hit the wall and it exploded into rubble around them. Slow down. Stop.
He took most of the impact on his own body but could not protect the man from all of it. The body he let fall to the sand was broken and he didn’t stop to see how broken, because that was when the shooting started. Lois was safe behind stone walls. Jimmy was not.
Superman could not act as fast as he wanted to. Human bodies were fragile and he could do serious damage by accident. With the General, he didn't care. Lois mattered more. This time he was more restrained.
The scene was one of chaos and Superman took it in swiftly. Men who appeared to be military but not of Amajagh’s former army had formed a circle, back to back, and were firing at anything they saw, people, shadows or motion. It looked indiscriminate, but there was a method in it. They were moving, slowly, toward one of the buildings. Around them, Amajagh’s men tried to fight back, but they were losing. And Jimmy was caught in the crossfire.
Superman eliminated the guns first. It took five seconds to rip guns from hands, crush the barrel of each one and throw it over the wall. He flew to Jimmy, saw at once that he was injured, and raked a scarlet line across the courtyard with his laser vision, drawing a barrier between Jimmy and the men who had tried to kill him. All around them, people were bleeding from bullet wounds.
“Are you okay?” he asked Jimmy. Before Jimmy could answer, an engine roared to life, followed by another, and another. Eight men - the eight who didn’t seem to belong - were on motorcycles. Since they were intent on leaving, Superman let them go. But he did notice one thing through the dust they threw up in their wake. The man leading them was someone he had seen before. He noted it, but had no time to deal with it.
Instead, Superman landed beside Jimmy. He saw the blood and scanned deeper, examining the injuries. Three bullet wounds, and he was lucky it wasn’t more with all the bullets that had been flying. One bullet was lodged in his collar bone, one had struck and broken a rib, the third went through Jimmy’s leg, dangerously close to the artery. He wasn’t in immediate danger but it was close. Superman offered a hand to help him up.
Jimmy scrabbled for the camera and hung it back around his neck. Only then did he accept Superman’s help. He could stand, but he couldn’t walk on that leg.
“Hold on,” Superman told him, and flew them both to the three Jeeps parked just inside the gate. He chose the one that had the least damage from the gunfight and helped Jimmy into the cab. “Wait here. Get a tourniquet on the leg if you can. I’ll be back with Lois.”
As he landed beside the Jeep with Lois in his arms, he said quietly, “We have to get out of here, but I’ve got one more thing to take care of. Stay here, and stay down.”
Superman returned to where he left General Amajagh. The man was alive, but still unconscious. He scanned the general’s body to assess his injuries. Superman had tried to protect him from the impact when they flew through the wall, but he hadn’t entirely succeeded. Amajagh’s right shoulder was crushed. It wasn’t likely he would have use of the arm again, if he lived. The concussion didn’t seem serious; there was no sign of bleeding in the brain. With adequate medical attention, he might survive, but it wasn’t Superman who would make that decision.
He lifted the general’s body and carried him back into the store room where he had threatened Lois. He left him there.
Satisfied, Superman rose quickly into the air above the compound. Before the trouble began, he had seen a convoy approaching. He looked for them from the sky and saw the trucks were less than thirty minutes away. They were government troops. He could leave Amajagh to them.
Superman had memorised the layout of the compound when he flew over it after meeting with Amal to organise the interview. He knew the extent of Amajagh’s arsenal and where the weapons were kept. From the air, he scanned each building to confirm there were no people inside, and destroyed each cache of weapons.
He could do no more if he wanted to save Jimmy. Not everyone in the compound was part of Amajagh’s terrorist army. There were prisoners: people taken from nearby villages and forced to work in the compound. Superman had to trust the government troops to take care of those people.
He had to take care of his friends.
Clark tapped lightly on the glass that separated the corridor from the hospital room. He could see Lois slumped in a chair beside the bed where Jimmy lay. Lois’s head snapped up at the sound of his knock. She started to get up. Clark opened the door. He spared a single glance for Jimmy, then his arms were full of Lois as she flung herself at his chest. Clark dropped the travel bag he was carrying and held her, burying his face in her hair.
Jimmy watched them through heavy-lidded eyes and wiggled his fingers in a weak wave. “Hey, Clark,” he whispered.
“How are you?” Clark asked cooly.
“I feel like crap, but they say that’s a good sign. The surgery went well.”
Clark moved a little to the side, still holding Lois against his body with one arm. “Good. I want you to recover quickly so I can break both your arms. What the hell were you thinking, man?”
“Clark!” Lois protested.
“You could have been killed because of him,” Clark said stubbornly.
“Then I’m the one who gets to beat him up. Not you.”
Clark shrugged and adjusted his glasses. “Okay then. You’ll hit him harder than I can anyway.”
“Hey!” Jimmy protested, but his voice was still hoarse, the protest weak.
Having made his point to Jimmy, Clark bent to retrieve the bag he brought with him. “I’ve got your passports and some of your things from the hotel in Nairomi. Superman doesn’t think you should go back there.”
“Superman is right,” Jimmy agreed.
“Seconded.” Lois took the bag from Clark with a smile. “I’m really glad you came, Clark.”
“Is that everything?” Bruce asked, in a tone meant to convey that it had better be. Meetings with corporate lawyers bored him.
“I believe so, Bruce.” The lawyer gathered up the papers scattered over the conference table between them.
“Good.” Bruce stood and offered his hand. “Thanks for your time.”
“Of course.” The lawyer shook his hand and turned to go.
Grace appeared in the doorway almost immediately after the lawyer left. She laid the regular newspapers on the conference table and started to clear away the coffee tray.
Bruce glanced at the newspapers and his eye fell on the headline about the massacre in Nairomi. He had seen that on CNN the evening before. They were still blaming Superman. Bruce wasn’t convinced.
He looked at at Grace. “What else is on my schedule today?” he asked.
“Mr Fox at ten,” she answered instantly. “The Wayne Tech board meeting at ten-thirty. Lunch with the Wayne Foundation award winners. Oh, and there is a journalist here to see you. He has no appointment but he insisted I tell you he’s waiting.”
“I don't have time,” Bruce pointed out. It was 9:45. “And even if I did... Wait. What journalist?”
“Clark Kent, of the Daily Planet.”
Oh, that was different. “Grace, I’m sorry, I should have mentioned it. Kent can see me whenever he needs to. Ask Lucius if we can meet after lunch instead and send Kent in. If Lucius needs to see me before the board meeting, push the meeting.”
A slight raise of her eyebrows gave away Grace’s surprise. “Yes, sir,” she said, and hurried from the room, the cups on the coffee tray clinking together as she walked.
She returned a moment later with Kent. “Do you want refreshments, sir?” she asked.
“Not for me. Kent?” Bruce looked at Clark.
“Thanks, but I’m good.”
“Thank you, Grace. Please make sure we’re not disturbed.” He waited until the door closed behind her. “I wasn’t expecting you. Is this about Nairomi?” His eyes flickered to the damning headline.
Clark walked around the table and drew out the chair beside Bruce. “Indirectly, yes. There’s something you need to know.”
Bruce interrupted him. “I’m sure what they’re reporting isn’t what happened, but I don’t think I can help. If you wanted to test Finch’s new committee you couldn’t have picked a worse way to start. Have they summoned you yet?”
Clark turned the newspaper around to read the headline. “No, but I’m sure they will. Have they called you?”
Bruce shook his head. “They won’t. This is all about the politics. You’ll be facing senators and military.”
Clark sighed. “That’s a pity. I’d feel better if you were there.”
Bruce raised an eyebrow. “Why? You know I’m not on your side.”
Clark frowned. “I didn’t realise I had a ‘side’.” He looked up, meeting Bruce’s eyes. “It was a bad day, Bruce, but I did not kill those people.” He hesitated then amended, “That’s not quite true. Amajagh might have died from his injuries. That’s on me. But he was alive when we left the compound.”
Bruce nodded. If the rebels had tried to kill Lois Lane, and that part of the story seemed to be true, Superman had good reason to retaliate. Yet he didn’t unleash his full power. Clark was learning to control his anger and that could only be a good thing.
“I believe you,” Bruce said.
“I may not have liked what you had to say in the Capitol, but you were right about most of it. Now I know why. You have...an insight, and you express it in a way that makes it hard to argue. I agreed to accept a certain oversight from this committee, and I know they’ll want to punish me for this.” He tapped the newspaper. “If I'm going to accept some kind of sanction, I want to be sure that they’ve considered all the implications. If you were there, I would know, even if that might work against me.” He pushed the newspaper away. “But that isn’t why I’m here, Bruce.”
“It isn’t?” Bruce leaned back in his chair. “I’m all ears.”
“In Amajagh’s compound, he had a private security team who seemed to be...I don’t know exactly. A personal bodyguard maybe. They were close to him, and in charge. They were not local men.”
If by “not local” Clark meant “white”, that was significant. Amajagh’s propaganda had all been based on local rule by local people, and rejecting the white, western narrative of Nairomi's troubles.
“One of them,” Clark went on, “the one in charge, I think, was someone we both know.”
Bruce sat up straight. He hadn’t expected that. “Who?”
“The man you were following a few weeks ago. You thought he was smuggling radioactive material.”
“What was a Russian smuggler doing in the Nairomi desert?” He blurted the question, then thought of a better one. He reached for his tablet computer and with a few taps on the screen found the email Oliver had sent him. He opened the attached photograph and showed it to Clark. “Was this man there?”
Clark studied it. The photograph was poor quality: something taken from a distance and blown up so the image was blurry and indistinct. Eventually he nodded. “Yes, I think so. With the Russian. Who is he?”
“This is our archer. Which makes our Russian friend Anatoli Knyazev. They’re elite mercenaries. Not smugglers.” Which meant Knyazev’s tear through Gotham had not been a mere decoy. It was a planned attempt on Bruce’s - or Batman’s - life. And it had almost succeeded. If not for Superman, he would have been killed by that fall.
He looked at Clark thoughtfully. “Mercenaries work for anyone with enough money. Amajagh wasn’t rich. He had backing from somewhere.”
“He was stockpiling arms manufactured in the US,” Clark said, “but I can’t prove his backer was American.”
“No, but it supports the possibility. And there appears to be a link to Gotham, which makes this my problem.”
“Our problem,” Clark insisted, “if the connection is what I’m beginning to suspect.”
“And that is?”
Shit and fuck! “You have evidence?” Bruce asked quickly.
Clark’s eyes widened. “You knew.”
Bruce turned off the tablet. “I know that LexCorp has been mixed up in a lot of things in the past. I know that young Lex is a bit crazy, a lot ambitious and not as smart as he thinks he is. And I know he’s got some scheme involving Superman.”
“Clark, if I knew, I would have told you already. I have pieces of the puzzle, but not enough to make a picture.”
“Then let’s pool what we know. Do you have time?”
Bruce checked his watch. It wouldn’t be the first time he failed to make it to a board meeting and this was more important. But perhaps not more urgent.
“I have a board meeting. I’d love to skip it, but...” He shook his head. “I keep an apartment in Metropolis. Maybe we can meet there this evening. I’ll have access to my data there and I can show you what I know.”
“Give me your cell number and I’ll text you the address. Show up any time after six.” He stood and accepted the business card Clark offered. He could have blown off the board, but he wanted more time to think about this, and to figure out just how much it was safe to share with Superman.
USAMRIID facility, location classified
Lex climbed down from the SUV and turned back for his briefcase. Mercy, who was his driver for the day as well as bodyguard, handed it to him. The case was aluminium on the exterior, but reinforced inside, and it was heavy. Lex looked up at the building as he slammed the SUV door closed. From the outside it was a large, grey, windowless box. There was a single doorway visible, but no company name above it, only a logo: a bisected shield with a stylised DNA strand on one side and a five-pointed star on the other.
The SUV beeped loudly in response to the remote lock and Mercy walked around to his side. She made no comment on the nondescript building. Lex headed for the door. It was made of bullet-proof glass and opened into a reception area that was sealed off from the rest of the building. It meant visitors admitted to the reception were effectively prisoners until the building security either let them proceed or let them leave.
Mercy looked around and her right hand twitched as if longing for a weapon. Lex understood her tension. She knew a kill-box when she was stuck in one. So did he. But they were in no danger. They had been invited.
Even so, Lex was required to prove his identity and expected to wait for someone to escort him. They wanted to search his briefcase, too. This, Lex refused: he had been assured he would be allowed to bring his equipment, but he did compromise by allowing them to scan it through their weapons detector.
He was becoming impatient by the time their “escort” arrived. The man was a few years Lex’s senior and wearing what appeared to be an army uniform, but with the identifying insignia removed. He did not introduce himself, but simply asked them to follow him.
Lex and Mercy were led through the white-painted corridors. There were doors, but very few of them and they were spaced widely apart. Each door was solid and protected by electronic locks. Each door was marked only with a number, and there seemed to be no order or logic to them. They passed doors marked 1964, 23, 562 and so on. Lex found the random order irritating, but he knew better than to ask.
They stopped at a door marked 702. Their escort swiped a card through the lock and entered a code: 4 - 2 - 7 - 9 - 0 - 2. Lex memorised it automatically, not because he had any intention to return, but just because his mind worked that way with numbers.
The door opened with a faint hiss and Lex moved to enter first, eager to get started after all the delays. Mercy held him back. Lex looked at her in surprise, but she was his bodyguard and he had no reason to doubt her instincts. He stepped back to let her go through the door first, and entered behind her.
There was no danger. In fact, there was almost nothing to see: a white wall, clad in what looked like glass, and a further locked door.
“We keep the alien remains inside.” The new voice was male and so gravelly the speaker sounded like a 40-a-day smoker, though surely someone with such a habit couldn’t handle working here.
Lex turned to face him. He was younger than his voice suggested, perhaps forty, with black hair and a beard. His skin was dark, somewhere between heavy sun-tan and native of south Asia. He wore a white coat over a shirt and tie.
He looked at their escort. “Thank you, Major. You’re dismissed.”
The major stiffened to attention, but did not salute. He left them alone and the door hissed closed behind him.
“Mr Luthor, welcome to project seven oh two. I’m Doctor Jones.”
Lex couldn’t help wondering whether Jones was an alias. “What can you tell me about the condition of the alien’s body?”
“Oh, it’s perfect. We keep it in a cold chamber, for preservation, but there has been no sign of normal decay.”
“Have you been able to conduct any tests?”
“Hm. Limited. The skin is completely impenetrable so dissection was impossible. We have MRI and X-ray scans, of course, but little else of interest.”
Lex nodded. “I’d like to go in alone. I believe I’m authorised to do that.”
“Yes, sir, of course.” Jones crossed to the door and tapped in a code. “Five, five seven, one,” he said aloud as he entered the numbers. The door swished open, but it didn’t lead to a new room. It was an elevator.
Lex smiled. “Mercy, I’ll be forty minutes,” he said, set the countdown on his wristwatch, and entered the elevator. The door closed behind him. There were only two buttons on the control panel: up and down. No emergency alarm or door controls, which was a little worrying. Lex pushed the button for down, realising as he did so that he actually didn’t know which was right. But the elevator began to move at once, smoothly descending.
When the doors opened, Lex emerged into a well-lit, white room about the size of his bedroom. In the middle of the room was a waist-high slab on which lay the body of a man, encased in what looked like a plastic bubble. As Jones had warned, the room was very cold. There were glass-fronted cabinets filling one wall, filled with medical equipment from scalpels to a defibrillator.
Lex walked around the slab and found the controls that retracted the plastic bubble surrounding it. For the first time, he looked upon the face of General Zod. The alien was clearly dead, but while the skin was grey, the features slack, he appeared only recently dead. There was no decay or desiccation.
Lex set his briefcase down on the ground and straightened to move closer to the alien. He reached out to touch the bare flesh, running his fingers over Zod’s face in a strange caress. This was the man responsible, at least in part, for his father’s death.
“Thank you,” Lex said softly, then he opened the briefcase and got down to work.
It was eight thirty by the time Clark reached the address Bruce gave him. He felt very ambivalent about this meeting. He didn’t understand what was between himself and Bruce. Instinct told him Bruce Wayne was Superman’s enemy, and Superman saving his life didn’t change that. But he had trouble digging up evidence to support that instinct. A few harsh words in the Capitol? Harsh that encounter may have been and Clark came away from it bruised, but it didn’t add up to more than words.
That was, in part, why he chose to appear as Clark, not as Superman. He wanted to appear normal, unthreatening. He wore grey-blue pants, a pale blue shirt with a plain tie and a casual jacket. And, of course, the thick-framed glasses.
Although he was late, Bruce seemed to know exactly when he would arrive: he had Chinese take-out cartons on the table with the contents still warm, and take-out coffee from the nearby cafe, also still hot. The take-out told Clark that Bruce spent very little time in this apartment: he had no food in the kitchen.
The apartment itself was a penthouse (of course) with a really great view of the bay. The furniture was sparse and could have been brand new. There was a bank of six screens in two rows on one wall and below them a panel of lights. Clark, looking through the panel, saw a complete network and server system, as well as controls for a false wall that would conceal and secure the hardware when it wasn’t in use. He wasn’t more technically proficient than the average American, but it was clear Bruce Wayne was.
“Help yourself to food,” Bruce said by way of greeting. “You like Chinese?”
“Sure. Thanks.” Clark grabbed a carton at random, selected a pair of chopsticks and followed Bruce to the computer.
“I want you to tell me everything you can about what happened in Nairomi,” Bruce said.
So, he was going to treat this like a business meeting. That was probably best, Clark thought. “We agreed to share information,” he pointed out.
“I’ll tell you what I know. But I’ll be able to tell you more if I have the full picture. Or at least as much of it as we can get to. How did Ms Lane get so close to Amajagh?”
“She’s good at her job,” Clark answered. “She had contacts in Nairomi from the war, and after the embassy bombings she followed up the story. She wanted to interview Amajagh. Lois has a way of getting what she wants.”
“I need the details to get to the bottom of this,” Bruce insisted. “Do you know the name of her source? How did she get the interview?”
For the next hour, Clark talked and Bruce asked questions, pushing him to recall even the most obscure details. Clark told him what he knew of Lois’s email contact with Amal and how the interview had finally been arranged. Then he told Bruce about that day. As much as he wanted to respect Lois’s independence, he couldn’t let her go into such a dangerous situation unprotected, but he hadn’t expected the interview to become so violent, so quickly. He told Bruce what happened, about the private security team around the General, led by Anatoli Knyazev, the same Russian mercenary who had been on the streets of Gotham as part of a setup designed to kill Batman. He explained about the tracking device Jimmy had carried, and Jimmy’s claim that a CIA agent gave it to him. He described the army convoy that followed them to Amajagh’s compound, most likely following that tracking signal, and the choice he made to get Jimmy and Lois out of there before the battle. He had destroyed as much of Amajagh’s weapons stockpile as he could before carrying the people he cared about out of there. Knyazev and his team escaped on motorbikes. He didn’t know if the army caught up with them, but it was possible the Nairomi troops didn’t even know they had been there.
Finally, Clark fell silent. While he was talking, Bruce had been making notes on the computer, and pulling up information, images and maps from different databases, displaying it all on the screens. He was damned good. Clark, reading Bruce’s data as quickly as he could fill the screens, learned more in that hour than he could have found in a week of doing the research alone. Bruce didn't need to say a word: almost everything Clark needed was right there.
He had a trail of emails between two people identified only as “Mr K” and “D”, which revealed that “D” had been refused an import license for “the package”, which could not be smuggled by the usual channels because the radioactivity would set off all kinds of alarms. “Mr K” agreed to commission “The White Portuguese” to transport the package to Gotham. The context of the correspondence made it seem that the White Portuguese was a person, but Clark remembered that was the name of the ship. Later emails gave details of the shipping route, expected date of arrival and even the berth. It made perfect sense that Bruce, as Batman, had attempted to intercept the package.
Bruce turned to face Clark. “Well, it’s clear that we were both set up. The White Portuguese emails led me into an ambush designed to kill me, or to kill Batman. Nairomi was designed to draw Superman in and discredit him. You. But so far I don’t see anything to prove a link to LexCorp. What have you left out? Something led you there.”
Clark moved to the window, looking down at the roofs of Metropolis and then across the water. He had an almost perfect view of Gotham City and it was easy to picture Bruce standing where he was, watching the sky above Gotham, waiting for the shadow in the clouds that called him to act.
“There were a few things,” Clark explained. “Amajagh had high tech weapons he couldn’t possibly have actually used. Drones, missiles, stuff that needs a bank of computers and reliable power, which he didn’t have. That stuff was LexCorp made.”
“That doesn't prove he dealt directly with LexCorp,” Bruce began.
“No, but there’s no way he had the kind of money it would take to buy it and it was too new to be left over from the war. Someone donated that equipment to him. The most obvious supplier is LexCorp. I don’t know many arms dealers who give away cutting edge tech.”
“Point,” Bruce conceded. “What else?”
“Knyazev and his men were wearing body armour that had a LexCorp manufacturing logo on it. Amajagh wouldn’t have seen that: the armour was covered by clothing. I checked: LexCorp doesn’t sell personal body armour.”
“They don’t make it, either,” Bruce said. He turned back to the computer and ran a search. “But they do have a special projects division...” Data scrolled up the screen, surely too quickly for Bruce to read. Clark saw only numbers: code designations. Then one flashed green and the scrolling stopped. The line read #ex.2631000.it.9.
Bruce typed again and the screen filled with a new list of numbers, but these were file names for tests and analyses. Bruce opened one.
“Testing an experimental material for armour and personal protection.They’re diversifying,” Bruce commented. He closed the file and opened another. “It’s not a kevlar derivative.” He frowned. “Look at that.”
The screen filled with something Clark recognised as a chemical formula, but he had no idea what it meant. “That’s a bit beyond my high school chemistry class.”
“High school chem doesn’t usually cover alien technology,” Bruce said dryly, “but I thought you might know something about it.”
Alien? He meant Kryptonian. “Not as much as you might assume. I don’t recognise that as Kryptonian. Is it?”
“It looks like it’s reverse-engineered from something salvaged after the invasion. It will take a while to find out what it was.” Bruce looked up again. “But if you didn’t know the material is experimental, I’m still not seeing why you are so suspicious of LexCorp. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you. But I want to understand why.”
Clark pondered. “This is harder to explain. It’s an instinct. I was at Lex’s home a couple of weeks ago, for an interview, with Lois and Jimmy. I think we talked about Nairomi, so if he had us monitored he may have found out about it that way, but it’s more my impression of Luthor.”
Bruce gave a cynical laugh. “He leaves an impression.”
“It’s more than that.” Clark felt some reluctance to explain, but he forged ahead. He told Bruce, briefly, about the interview, his odd moment of illness and Luthor’s reaction.
Bruce looked grim. “You can’t be that naïve, Clark. You can’t afford to be.”
Anger flashed inside Clark. “I’m not - ”
“Do you really not know about this?” Bruce asked incredulously. He brought up a new file on the screen. It showed a long string of letters and subscript above a diagram made of circles joined by lines: a chemical formula and molecular diagram.
Clark studied the image. It took a moment before he realised that this one was familiar.
“Kryptonite,” he said. “It’s from the core of my home planet. My people used it as a power source, similar to the way uranium is used here, but it’s many times more powerful. It doesn’t exist in this solar system.”
“Not naturally,” Bruce agreed, “but it’s here now. Look at this.” A new image appeared on the screen. “That’s the dust that was all over ground zero after the invasion. Most of it is brick and concrete, but there’s about three percent kryptonite in this sample.”
Clark adjusted his glasses as he studied the picture; the gesture had become a habit. “This is all over Metropolis?”
“No, the first big rainstorm would have washed most of it away. There could be traces in the storm drains, maybe, and very likely at the bottom of the bay. But a few larger samples were found in the wreckage in the Indian Ocean. LexCorp has them now and Lex has been experimenting on the remains of General Zod. This kryptonite is far more toxic to you than plutonium is to humans.” He looked at Clark with amazement, and a little pity. “How can you not know about this?”
When had Clark had the chance to learn? he thought defensively. He was a baby when he came to Earth and his education was human, in human schools. The scout ship found under the ice in Canada was his first encounter with anything of Krypton, and he did not have custody of the ship for long before the invasion began. Even with the wealth of knowledge available to him through the ship, there was only so much even he could absorb in a few days.
What he said to Bruce was, “It’s not that I don't know about the mineral. I just have a very different perspective. You’re seeing it as a weapon, aren't you?”
“I told you. A fuel source, a piece of my home planet. My body reacts badly to Krypton because I’ve never lived there. My cells adapted to Earth’s environment. I do understand that could be used against me but it’s not how I think of it.”
“Then tell me you at least understand what happened at Lex’s house. And what it means.”
Clark had never been a fan of twenty questions, but he did understand now that his moment of illness during the interview was probably induced by kryptonite. His exhaustion after the invasion was also explained by the dust Bruce showed him. He frowned. “Bruce, if you’ve got something to say, just say it.”
“If you’re a psychopath with almost unlimited resources, how would you lure Superman?” Bruce didn’t give Clark a chance to answer. “You’d set a bomb, or arrange some other disaster. Probably not in Metropolis - that’s too obvious - but close to some other big event so there’ll be TV cameras to make sure Superman gets the news. But Lex didn’t do that, did he? Twice now, he’s used Lois Lane to get to you. She’s Clark Kent’s girl.”
Clark felt very stupid. It was obvious, and he should have seen it. “Lois is close to Superman,” he pointed out, though he knew it was a weak objection. “On the day of the invasion, several people saw us together, and those articles were under her byline.”
“If it was only Nairomi, that might make sense. But not inviting you to his home to expose you to kryptonite. Accept it, Clark. He knows who you are.”
“How?” Clark asked. “You knew. How did you find out?”
“Pooling our knowledge, remember.”
“I had access to classified information from the invasion. You told General Swanwick you’d been on Earth for thirty three years. Zod’s people went looking for something in Smallville. Put the two together and I had a relatively small pool of suspects. After that it was easy to narrow it down to one.”
“Did Luthor have the same information?”
“He doesn’t have my contacts, but it would just have take him longer. Lex is a very good hacker. He could have found the same files I did.”
Clark eyed the computer Bruce was working on. “Could he have hacked your system?”
Bruce’s involuntary reaction answered him before he spoke. “It’s...possible. I know he tried. If he actually broke in, he covered his tracks well.”
“Does that mean Luthor knows about you?”
“That’s an interesting question,” Bruce said. “If he had proof, I think he would have used it. He might suspect. He almost certainly knows there’s a WayneTech connection to Batman, but I don’t think he knows anything for sure.”
Clark shook his head. “This can’t be just a knowledge-is-power thing. What does he want?” he asked, frustrated.
“Luthor - not Lex, I mean his father - wanted me dead,” Bruce said. “Just before his death he hired...” Bruce broke off suddenly. His eyes met Clark’s. “Oh. Oh, that’s clever. I may have underestimated him.” He turned back to the computer and opened a new file. This one took a moment to decrypt, then Bruce typed: search communication key metahuman.
“What’s ‘metahuman’?” Clark asked.
“It was a crackpot conspiracy theory before you showed up. Now it’s being taken a bit more seriously.”
Search results appeared on the screen: they looked like email subject lines.
Bruce swore under his breath. “Two birds with one stone.” Bruce turned away from the computer, pushing a key to blank the screens. “Lex wants you to kill Batman.”
“Why would he think I’d do that?”
Bruce shrugged. “Batman is a criminal vigilante and you’re an idealist. To Lex, that’s a simple equation. He thinks he can manipulate you into it.”
“You said he was smart. That’s not smart.”
“If your diagnosis of Lex as a psychopath is accurate - and for what it’s worth, I think he is - then human emotion is his weakest spot. He can fake it, but he doesn’t really understand it.” Bruce rose from his chair and picked up his cold coffee. “Lex’s father was a master at this game. I mean, the man made Machiavelli look like a rank amateur. I’ve been thinking for a while this felt a bit like I was dealing with him. The metahuman serial killer, the White Portuguese setup...it feels like Luthor’s hand on the wheel.”
“But he’s dead.” Clark frowned, trying to make sense of this.
“Yes, but it’s his plan, his strategy. Lex stumbled onto it somehow and - this is a guess - he’s trying to adapt the plan to his own goal.”
“Which is Batman dead?”
“No. That was his father’s goal. For Lex, that’s a means to an end.” Bruce looked at Clark. “I think Superman is his real target. Dead or discredited.”
The picture began to form in Clark’s mind. Superman was already on thin ice because of what happened in the desert. If Superman killed Batman, no matter the reason, it wouldn’t play well in the press. It didn’t feel like the whole of the answer, but it did feel right.
“Lex thinks he can play us off against each other but he doesn’t have his father’s talent at this. Tell me, has anyone talked to you about Batman, or contacted you as a journalist?”
“I’ve expressed an interest in the subject, at the Planet. Someone sent me some photographs from a crime scene.”
Clark reached into his jacket and handed Bruce three photocopied pictures. The first was a wide view of the inside of a shipping container with two men, bloody and beaten on the floor. The second was a closer image of a third man, naked to the waist, being manhandled by two police officers. There was a bat-shaped burn on his chest. The third was a magnified image of that burn: a brand. Written on each of the images were the words judge, jury and executioner. Clark watched Bruce study the images.
“Did you know the man you branded was murdered in prison?” Clark said, when he couldn’t be silent any longer. “He had a wife and children. People are saying the Bat marked him for death.”
Bruce scoffed. “He was a paedophile who raped children and sold them as sex slaves. Men like that are supposed to be segregated in prison for their own protection. Prisoners can be fathers as well as criminals. It had nothing to do with Batman.”
“You seem very sure. I don’t want to get off-topic here but - ”
Bruce shoved the photocopies back at Clark. “You know that if he had children of his own, it’s only a matter of time before he abused them, if he hadn’t already?”
“I’m aware. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve punishment. But - ”
Bruce interrupted. “It’s interesting that Lex chose that scene. He doesn’t know, because no one does except the dead paedophile, but I wasn’t there alone that night. I wasn't even the first on the scene. The men who were shot - that was ricochet because they shot at Diana. Ask her about it when she gets back from London. I didn’t brand that man to punish or mark him. I did it to keep the cops’ attention on me.” He took a breath. “So Lex, or someone, sent you pictures designed to turn you against Batman. Anything else?”
“I proposed writing some articles. Perry says no one cares about crime in Gotham. He won’t print. But I’m still working on it. I’ve talked to a few people.”
“That’s good. We can work with that.”
“Do you want to stop Lex, or not? You do realise that if your death is his endgame, there will probably be a lot of collateral damage, even if he fails.”
“You have a plan?”
“Not a plan. A strategy. Keep working on that anti-Batman article. Let Lex think it’s a big thing for you.”
“It is. But you want him to think that Superman might be willing to take on Batman?”
“Yes, exactly. I can do the same from my side. If Lex believes his manipulation is working, I think he’ll show his hand. Does anyone know you came to my office this morning?”
“Only Lois, and your employees, of course.”
“Then if we meet in public, we don’t know each other.”
“It might work,” Clark agreed. “Can you do one thing for me?”
“Next time Batman is out in Gotham, it would help if he gets noticed. Give me a reason to get back in Perry’s face about my article.”
Bruce smiled: a predator scenting prey. “I can do that.”
“Then I’d better go.”
“One more thing, Clark.”
“The US recognised the Nairomi government as legitimate after their elections, but we don’t have an embassy there or any formal diplomatic relations. Amajagh threatened the lives of two US citizens. You didn’t do anything our own special forces wouldn’t have done, if they happened to be on the scene. Tell Finch’s committee that.”
“Thanks. I will.”