It felt like she had fallen down the rabbit hole, but not into a wonderland that anyone but the most detached egghead alien-hater would find fascinating. The longer she was here, the more Kala’s sense of time was getting disoriented by the lack of natural light, and the fact that her room had no clocks. She had checked the time when she went out to eat, but realized that she couldn’t really tell if it was AM or PM, other than by what type of food was being served in the cafeteria. For that matter, she wasn’t exactly sure what day it was. She’d been no more than semi-conscious for a long time after she was kidnapped, and couldn’t remember much beyond the foul smell of whatever gas they knocked her out with. There had been injections, checks of her blood pressure and heartbeat, and someone rubbing a cotton swab inside her mouth. The last didn’t seem to have any real medical purpose, unlike the rest of her recollections, so Kala wasn’t sure whether it had happened or if it was a hallucination.
Regardless, she felt profoundly disconnected, trapped in a world totally opposite of her own. Her life outside these walls seemed so far away. Even though she felt like a crybaby for thinking it, she wanted her brother. If Jason was here, he’d protect her … she wouldn’t have to worry about the pros and cons of trusting Zod. She and Jason could stand together against Zod and Luthor and anyone else who wanted to take a shot at them. Hadn’t it worked last time, when they were little kids? She would have Jason’s back, he would have hers. All of that mess with Giselle wouldn’t matter; it hadn’t been his fault that he hadn’t known.
Or even better would be her father – but if he were here, she wouldn’t be, not for more than five minutes. No matter what Luthor had up his sleeve, Kal-El would have gotten her out as fast as possible. By now she would be back home playing with her ferret, calling Sebast on Jason’s phone, or maybe talking to Elise. What Sebast had implied in their last phone conversation was such a tiny, stupid thing compared to this. Giselle was a freaking spy for Luthor; of course she would spread the worst gossip she could invent. Kala wished she could turn back time just enough to let Sebast apologize for his presumptuousness; if she’d talked to him, she might not have run away from home. Her heart ached to know she might not ever see her best friend again, that things between them would forever end with those hurt feelings. She couldn’t think of a time she wanted to hug him and never let go than now.
And Nick. Things were over with Nick before they had ever begun. Kala had to bite her lip again; after all of the trouble she had gotten herself into and how much she liked him, the thought only hurt more. He’d been there at the club when no one else was, he’d heard her sing, he’d told her she really had the potential to achieve her dream. But now, instead of planning how she would become a rock star, she was basically a guinea pig in a madman’s lab.
Hell, right now she would’ve welcomed one of those special Mom-lectures, the ones where Lois crossed her arms and frowned and spoke in that tight, clipped voice of utter disappointment. If Mom would only come in, guns blazing the way she had on the Gertrude. Her mother wouldn’t give up until she had her free, she was starting to realize now. Mom might fuss and nitpick and yell angry words she wouldn’t mean five minutes later, but she’d never abandoned her. Neither she nor Jason.
Just to have Mom burst in, bash Luthor over the head with the butt of her gun, and drag her out by her ear, Kala would have cheerfully sat down on the couch and grinned through an hour of that, complete with the stories from Lois’ past that were intended to warn her away from Making the Same Mistakes Mom Did. She would’ve agreed completely with every one of Mom’s annoying assertions that Kala was in over her head, playing with fire, and any other melodramatic metaphor Lois could imagine, and she would’ve applauded at the end.
That image – giving Mom a standing ovation at the end of one of her scathing lectures in those kind of circumstances– broke Kala down, and she curled up on her bed, face buried in the pillow. For the first time in months, she wanted nothing more than to see her mother.
“Let’s go,” Jason murmured. The house had been quiet for the past half-hour while they plotted, and this was their best chance. Elise was keyed up, gnawing at her lower lip, and her grip on the blankets they’d borrowed left her white-knuckled.
Sebast opened the window for them, and Kristin watched, wide-eyed. Those little blue eyes just looked up at him so woefully, but Jason knew she was trying to be brave. “Love you,” she whispered, raising her arms. “Stay safe. Daddy’s gonna kill you if you two don’t hide real good.”
Fighting the urge to both laugh and cry, Jason picked his little sister up and hugged her tight. It was only starting to occur to him now to be a little afraid of what could happen. But holding Little K only made him more determined to bring Kal home to her. “Love you, too, and you take good care of Bagel and Gazeera and the weasel for me, huh?” he said in a voice that was a lot stronger than he felt at the moment. Pulling away, he looked at her with a little smile. “Promise to keep the secret as long as you can? Until Aunt Lucy finds you two?”
Kristin nodded her head seriously, red hair bouncing. “Promise.”
His heart tugging at him, Jason kissed her and stole another hug before he handed her over to Elise, who hugged her, too.
Then Jason was standing at the window looking at Sebast. Both boys knew how much the Latino boy wanted to be on that plane. Hell, he was Kala’s best friend, almost as close as a brother. And he felt personally responsible for her running away, since he’d been the last one to speak with her. But only one of them could go.
And it had to be Jason. Sebast had lain under the bed staring up at the box spring when Richard had said that being a man sometimes meant stepping aside instead of stepping up. That didn’t mean this was easy. Down to the last second, he couldn’t think of a single thing to say, and finally Jason just hugged him. “I’ll find her, Sebast.”
“You’d better,” the other boy murmured, thumping Jason’s back for emphasis.
Elise rolled her eyes at them, hugging Sebast tight. “I’ll find her even if he doesn’t. She’s coming home with us. I promise.” Then there was no more time for words; they had to hurry. She followed Jason out of the house and along the back of the property, slinking through the shadows of Mrs. Troupe’s lilacs. They had to dash across open space to get to the plane, and both kids stopped to look up at the house. This would be the worst possible time for someone to glance out a window. “There’s a light on,” Elise hissed, pointing to the second floor.
“It’s okay, they’re … um … busy,” Jason murmured, glad she couldn’t see him blushing. That was the guest room, and he highly doubted that Richard or Lana was paying attention to anything going on in the backyard.
With a dubious look from Elise, they ran for it.
Luthor glared at the expensive flat-screen monitor in front of him. “How long until we can usurp the satellite transmission and triangulate?” he snapped.
“Not sure,” Stanford replied. The geologist’s hair had turned almost completely gray in the past ten years, and he had lines around his mouth and eyes that didn’t come from smiling. As one of Lex’s long-term employees (a rare distinction), he’d wound up overseeing most of the technological aspects of the Nevada complex. The alpha wave tracker was older man’s invention, and Stanford hadn’t had any input on the improvements over the years, but he was the nearest tech person when Luthor called for an update on its latest refinement.
The device tracked Superman by means of some complicated radiation unique to Kryptonians. Whether it was brain waves or a function of their metabolism, Stanford didn’t know. But the alpha waves, as Luthor called them, were harmless and nearly undetectable, serving to mark Superman’s location and direction. Luthor counted on it as an early-warning device to accurately predict the hero’s arrival.
Everyone knew Superman would find this place eventually, unless Lex managed to kill him first. Some plans toward that goal were already in place, but in typical Luthor fashion, every eventuality was planned for. If and when Superman arrived here, Luthor wanted to know ahead of time, so he could have a hero’s welcome waiting for the alien.
Unfortunately for his plans, the facility housed one full-blooded Kryptonian and a half-human hybrid, both of whom were much closer to the device than Superman was. When it was just Zod, Luthor had been able to correct the readings to screen out the General’s alpha waves. But with Kala here, the device was completely thrown off. Her alpha waves weren’t as strong as a full Kryptonian’s, so the tracker kept suggesting she was further away than she actually was. Worse, the interaction of her signal and Zod’s played hell with Luthor’s equations. For the moment, they could tell by the pattern of interference that Superman was somewhere in the general area, but they had no direction and no accurate distance. He could have been anywhere from a hundred miles away, to a hundred yards, although Stanford guessed that the waves from a Kryptonian with full powers would be noticeable at that proximity.
Luthor did not like to guess, and it made him snappish, another reason for Stanford to talk to him instead of the engineers who were actually working on the problem. After all, he had proven his worth and his loyalty, and that made Luthor less likely to take out his frustrations on Stanford.
Stanford checked the progress notes on the current project, which was hijacking two commercial satellites’ signals to rebroadcast the alpha wave search pattern. Hopefully that would give them a better idea of where Superman was at the moment. The engineers assigned to the task knew their boss well enough to keep very detailed notes on their progress.
While he did so, Luthor turned away and brushed his hand across another screen. The touch-sensitive monitor brought up the main menu, and Luthor searched through it pensively. Stanford paid him little attention – but as always, he did keep a tiny bit of his focus on his employer. No one ever ignored the boss completely.
When Luthor started chuckling, Stanford turned to see what was up. “Mercy is always thorough,” Luthor murmured. “Keeping me abreast of the situation in Metropolis, even though I’m fairly certain our caped crusader has vacated the premises.”
It was always wise to take the opportunity to learn what was on Luthor’s mind. “Oh, really?” Stanford said, trying for casual interest. “What’s happening there?”
Luthor smiled, and Stanford reflected that he’d seen friendlier grins at the zoo. “We installed a program on the Daily Planet intranet servers. Every time someone searches the archives or the internet for certain terms – among them, my name – it records which terminal did the search, where they went for the next fifteen minutes, and every keystroke they made. And it seems as though the activity has picked up again. Lois Lane’s computer was the source of most of the searches; she’s been researching information about me for weeks. But now she’s stopped all of a sudden, and five different terminals are pulling up the same documents she was.”
“So she quit, and passed the project on to someone else?” Stanford asked.
“Or she’s traveling, and has to use whatever internet connection she can find,” Luthor said. “It’s more likely that she’s on the move. I can’t imagine that she and Superman would be too comfortable around each other, after what I told him, but I wouldn’t put it past her to try finding me on her own, in an attempt to get back into his good graces.”
With that, he laughed, and the sound was as cold as the desert wind far above them.
The moment that daylight journeyed over the horizon, Lucy Troupe was already busy proving that Lois hadn’t been the only one to inherit some of their father’s personality. She hurried through the house as if it were a barracks; making sure all the last-minute packing was done, all the pets were in their crates, and everyone was getting ready and eating breakfast. Already anxious, the departing members of the family hopped to immediately. As she made her rounds, Lucy tried not to think how odd it felt for everyone to be gathered together in this sort of state of affairs. Usually what brought them together was a holiday like the one just passed, not something this dangerous.
Adding to the unsettled feeling was the absence of her sister and brother-in-law and the hole left by Richard and Lana’s departure in the wee hours. She and the kids were going to be forced to leave Ron behind to watch over the paper; he, Perry, and Jimmy keeping an eye out for any strike that Luthor might possibly make from that angle. Everything just felt wrong in Lucy’s world and she was afraid it was beginning to show. If Lois had been there, she would have not even tried to hide her snickering. “Oh, that look’s familiar; Lucinda’s about twenty seconds from stomping her feet and screaming for Dad. You even have you lip pooched out the way you did when you were five.”
And said mood was just being enhanced by the fact that Jason and Kristin, two of the most important set of evacuees, had stayed huddled in bed in spite of her first two calls. Well, time to stop being polite. This time, instead of simply opening the door and calling to the pair, Lucy walked in. “C’mon, Jason,” his aunt said a trifle testily from the foot of the bed, arms crossed. He’d always been difficult to wake up, but he wasn’t usually this much trouble. “Honey, you have to get up.”
Jason scrunched up into a little ball, the way he’d slept ever since he was old enough to roll himself over. Kristin looked wide-eyed; she was awake, but for some reason had decided to stay with Jason instead of getting up. When he burrowed his head under the pillow, Lucy’s patience gave out. “Rise and shine! Jase, I know that you’re a late-riser, but this is too important. I want the both of you up. Now.” With no further warning, she whipped the sheets off the bed.
When he didn’t move, she smacked him on the rump warningly, the way she had when he was a boy. Not too hard, but enough to let him know she meant business. He yelped and jumped up, turning to stare at her…
…and it wasn’t Jason, but Sebast dressed in the t-shirt and pajama pants her nephew had worn to bed. Sebast, who had left last night with Elise. It seemed as if she was fighting for air when it occurred to her what was going on here. We shouldn’t have let the kids ride with that Nick, Lucy thought with a sinking feeling in her stomach. They were up to something. We all always forget how much he’s Lois’ son, too. We should have known. In the end, all she could manage to say aloud was, “What…?”
Although she knew that the kids had to have planned this, Kala’s best friend was obviously at a loss for words. Looking as though he wanted to sink into the mattress, Sebast could only grin guiltily. “Um, hi, Mrs. Troupe.” Kristin, meanwhile, was glancing from one to the other; it was clear that she’d been in on this, too.
But if Sebast was here, then… Tell me he didn’t, please tell me he didn’t… Fighting for control, Lucy asked as calmly as she could. “Sebast, where’s Jason?”
The boy gulped and looked down while muttering the answer. “Heading for Nevada.”
Lucy didn’t have her sister’s vocabulary, but she was a general’s daughter, too, and she could curse when it was warranted. Sebast winced more than he had the moment before, quickly moving to cover Kristin’s ears.
This was a really, really bad idea, Jason thought. He and Elise were huddled in the cargo compartment, hiding behind the suitcases Richard and Lana had packed last night. The cold required them to huddle close together, even wrapped in as many blankets as they could find in Ella’s old room, and that was awkward.
At least they could talk while the plane was in flight. When Richard stopped to refuel, which he’d done twice so far, the kids had to be quiet, but the engines drowned out their conversation while they flew. Of course, it wasn’t easy figuring out what to talk to your ex about when she was pressed uncomfortably close to you while you both stowed away on a plane to find your kidnapped sister.
One thing occurred to Jason: her answer to Kristin earlier. “So, about this dating thing,” he’d said cautiously, and Elise had immediately cut him off with, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
They’d been silent for a while, until boredom wore on them. Then they talked desultorily about school and their mutual friends, just trying to fill the hours. Jason hadn’t heard how long the trip was going to be, but since this was a seaplane and not a jet, it would probably take most of the day.
After exhausting those mundane topics, Jason and Elise fell to discussing how the grownups would react when they got to Nevada. Jason knew he couldn’t stay hidden from his father for very long, even if they could somehow get off the plane without Richard or Lana realizing it. He hoped his mother would understand, and maybe Richard; Dad would be furious, and Lana would probably be disappointed in him. That was something he was prepared to suffer, however, to find his sister. Nothing else mattered to him at this point.
Elise shifted position, drawing Jason’s attention back to her. They had fallen quiet again, but she couldn’t seem to keep still. “Are you okay?” he asked, leaning back to give her more room.
“Fine,” the girl replied as casually as she could. But the strain was obvious in her voice and he couldn’t miss the tension in her body. She was evidently forcing herself to hold still.
Jason sighed in exasperation. “Elise, come on. What’s up? How come you’re squirming around like a little kid who has to…” Just then it dawned on him. “Oh.”
“Just shut up, Jason,” she muttered angrily. “I’ll be fine. I mean, we can’t be in the air much longer, right?”
Jason didn’t answer her. He wasn’t sure quite where they were, but it seemed as though enough time had passed that they would need to land soon. The question was, would they be arriving in Nevada, where he and Elise could finally get off the plane? Or was it just another refueling stop?