“We’re downloading the new data now,” Stanford said nervously. Luthor and Mercy were both watching over his shoulder, their gazes fixed on the monitor. At the moment it displayed a satellite map of southern Nevada. If everything went well, a series of red dots would soon appear on that map, plotting Superman’s approximate path of travel and current location. It could only be approximate; alpha wave signal strength might vary among Kryptonian-human hybrids, and their equations necessarily used Kala’s data to extrapolate values for Jason. If his signal were stronger or weaker than hers, it could skew the results.
On the other hand, if the boy was here, he was likely close to his father, so the direction should still be accurate. Stanford tried not to think too closely about what this meant – all he’d wanted was a chance to study those fascinating crystals, and he’d done that. He now knew more about Kryptonian crystals than any other human being, and he felt obscurely proud of the knowledge. The price, however, was knowing that his employer intended to kill every remaining Kryptonian. That didn’t sit well with Stanford, but then, what other choice did he have? He’d made his decision to fall in with Luthor a decade ago, and nothing could take that back now.
The screen flickered, and the pattern of dots appeared. Stanford couldn’t help gasping; Superman was close, no more than three hours away by car. That was only minutes for him, though.
“They’re both staying relatively still, and close to the highway,” Mercy pointed out. “Maybe they’re traveling by car, for some reason? Saving their strength?”
“It could be,” Luthor murmured. “It will take him a while to find this place. Regardless, he’s much closer than I’d like him to be. Stanford, it’s time to initiate the fallback plan.”
The geologist startled a bit. He hadn’t heard the fallback plan mentioned in several years. “Sir?” he asked.
“Take the best of the scientists – the top thirty percent or so – from each division with you to the secondary facility in Australia,” Luthor said. “Tell them they’re to get everything up and running so we can bring it online to run backup to this facility. One way or another, I should be joining you there shortly.”
Now he remembered. The lab in Australia was similar to this one, but it held only a skeleton crew in charge of backing up the data from Nevada. It could completely take over operations in case anything happened in Nevada, and if Luthor felt this facility was threatened, he had planned to send his best and brightest to Australia. That way if something catastrophic occurred, they would lose only the security staff and the under-performers.
Stanford supposed he ought to be glad he was going to be far from the coming fight, but he was also saddled with choosing which of his team would get to join him in safety. As he rose to leave, Luthor added something casually that chilled him to the core. “Make sure you stop by the cryolab and take representative samples with you.”
“How many, sir?” Stanford asked, trying not to show his trepidation. He hated the sterile room with its nitrogen-cooled containers.
“Three samples of each of the cell lines,” Luthor told him. Stanford grew even more worried; last time he’d checked, there had been only one cell line. What exactly were Luthor’s biologists growing down there? And how much sleep would he lose over the answer, when he found it?
“In the meantime,” Mercy was saying, still looking at the map, “we should do our best to see to it that the fallback plan never has to become primary. Perhaps it’s time we set a few roadblocks in the path of their search.”
Luthor nodded. “We know roughly where they are, it shouldn’t be too hard to intercept them – and we have assets in Hawthorne.”
“And since our other efforts have been … less than successful, I think I’ll handle this myself.” Mercy grinned, and Stanford turned to go. The blonde was utterly ruthless, and proved it with the statement that followed him out the door. “I’ll need the handheld alpha wave tracker, Lex. I don’t want the alien swooping in at the wrong moment while I’m dealing with his family.”
Clark watched Lois storm away, aggravated. All he’d tried to do was make up, at least a little, for last night. After everything Richard had told him, he knew he needed to start trying to bridge the widening gap between himself and Lois.
In the gentlest tones he could manage, he’d said he didn’t want a divorce. Her reply had been to coldly state that he was the one who brought it up first. Clark had sighed, thinking he couldn’t even try to apologize without getting a slap in the face for his pains, and then Lois had yanked the car over to the shoulder and stormed out of it so fast he’d thought at first that she’d seen something important as they drove.
But then he’d heard the door slam, seen the furious set of her shoulders, and known she was angry at him. He got out of the car, wanting to keep her in sight even though he decided not to approach her. Richard’s car wasn’t far behind them, and soon Lois was trying to get Richard to switch with her. Clark winced slightly. He didn’t particularly want to tell the younger man how his attempt to patch things up had failed so spectacularly.
It was Lana who got out and started walking toward his car, and Clark’s heart fell even lower. She knew him very well, and she had high expectations of him. Clark hadn’t really had a long, serious conversation with Lana since she’d dressed him down in front of the entire family and friends for losing his temper with Lois. Now he wasn’t looking forward to another session of that.
Once Lois and Richard had passed him, he got the spare key from the glove box and backed the car up to spare Lana the walk. She slid into the passenger seat, saying, “I hope you don’t mind driving. I already took a pain pill.”
Clark just nodded. He’d planned to rest on this trip, but it seemed that fate was laughing at his plans lately. “It’s fine,” he said shortly, waiting for the lecture to begin.
But Lana didn’t say anything to him, just leaned her head back and watched the road ahead of them through half-closed eyes. Her silence made Clark more and more anxious, until he finally got irritated enough to break the silence himself. “Look, I know you’re upset with me,” he said, and the rest of the words came pouring out as if that were a cork. “You expect better of me, you always have, and I’ve always tried to live up to that higher standard. I’m a hero, after all, I’m supposed to be better than anyone else, I’m supposed to be above all this. Well, darn it, I’m sorry I can’t just bounce back and forgive Lois right away. She cut a deal with Luthor, and of all the psychopaths who’ve tried to kill me, he’s the only one I’m actually afraid of. My God, I still have nightmares sometimes! So excuse me if I find it a little difficult to accept the fact that Lois bargained with him and kept it a secret from me for our entire marriage!”
He hadn’t been able to look at her, keeping his gaze on the road, and when Lana spoke at first he couldn’t understand what she said, it was so far from what he’d expected. “What?”
In the same gentle tone, Lana repeated, “Clark, you’re mistaken. I am the last person who expects you to be more than human. You’re just as fallible and human as any of us, and I’d be very worried if you could take this calmly.”
Somehow that made him tighten his grip on the steering wheel. “I’m not human,” Clark all but growled.
“Yes, you are,” Lana told him, laying her wounded hand on his arm. “I know you, Clark – I’ve known you longer than anyone but Martha. We ate paste together in kindergarten, remember?”
That was long, long ago, but when the memory surfaced it made Clark chuckle in spite of his tension. “It was Pete’s idea. He told us both it tasted like lemonade.”
“And we believed him, more fools us,” she replied fondly. “Clark, trust me. You are human in all the ways that count. You were raised by us, not Kryptonians, and from talking to Lois and the twins I know you have some fairly significant deviations from normal Kryptonian psychology. Like that fact you haven’t run screaming from the car at being touched.” She squeezed his bicep gently.
Clark wasn’t mollified. “But I’m a superhero. I should be better than this – I shouldn’t be this furious at my own wife.”
“You’re not furious, you’re hurt – and you’re taking a page out of Lois’ book by turning that pain and the fear of Luthor into anger.” Lana rubbed his arm, soothing some of the tension. “Clark, your powers don’t make you who you are. Not all of the Justice League has superpowers, but they all have the drive to try and make this world a better place. I can’t say you’d be out there in a cape if you’d been born human, but I know you would be helping somehow. You’re a hero, and that comes from the heart – from your very human heart. The powers you have just make some things easier.”
She was right, he realized. Bruce Wayne’s only superpowers were his insatiable desire for justice and his apparently unlimited bank account, yet he was a founding member of the JLA and widely respected, even feared, by other heroes.
Lana continued, “Everything you’re going through right now is perfectly understandable. Though I’m sure Richard reminded you that Lois would do anything – anything – if she thought it would protect you and the twins, that doesn’t make it much easier for you to handle.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Clark agreed. “Not even when I know that I have to put this behind me. If Lois and I are at odds, it’s a perfect opportunity for Luthor to drive us further apart. And I don’t want to lose her. No matter what she’s done, she’s still my wife, and I love her.”
“She loves you, too. And she made this deal and kept it a secret precisely because she doesn’t want to lose you, either.”
“So why is it so darn hard to find our way back to each other? Just now I was trying to apologize to her, to make up for being snappish last night, and she completely took it the wrong way.” Clark glanced at the speedometer and realized he’d been pressing down a little too hard on the accelerator in his frustration.
“You have to keep trying,” Lana told him. “That’s ultimately what will save you both. If you truly love each other, you’ll keep trying no matter how many times you fail. When Richard and I were having problems, the one thing we never let go of was the fact that we wanted to be together no matter what. As many times as I ripped into him for no reason, as many times as he did something thoughtless, we forgave each other and tried again.”
She paused, and he felt the weight of her gaze as she studied him. “Clark, this isn’t something you can do once and it will be over so you can live happily ever after again. Life is not a fairytale, no matter how much your love story with Lois has been the stuff of legends. You have to work at a marriage, every day – it might look like you have a perfect relationship to the outside observer, but there will always be little mistakes and miscommunications, things that frustrate you. But you have to stop pushing all that aside to deal with it later. It just builds up until you’re so aggravated that you can’t handle any of it. Talk to Lois, make time just to be with her.”
Proving once again how well she knew him, Lana added, “And if you start to feel selfish, making yourself set aside time for your wife when however many disasters are happening at any given moment, remember that you need her too. Taking that time makes you a better hero, because you can do your job with your mind and conscience clear. You’ve always needed Lois, just as much as she’s always needed you.”
Clark sighed. He was normally a very cautious driver, but he took his eyes off the road long enough to meet Lana’s gaze and thank her.
By the time they arrived at the hotel in Hawthorne, Mr. White had just about gotten Mrs. Lane-Kent completely out of her foul mood. The thought crossed Elise’s mind that his relentless encouragement and optimism made him their cheerleader, but the mental image of Mr. White with pom-poms cracked her up too much.
Even better, Mr. Kent seemed to have benefited from Mrs. White’s presence during the trip. He was much less short-tempered and snappish when they unloaded the cars, even sparing his wife an apologetic look.
Once at the hotel, they took stock of their lot. They had netted three rooms together, each adjoining, and everyone stashed their luggage haphazardly. “Okay, kids, listen up,” Mrs. Lane-Kent said, and Elise turned toward her attentively.
“This is the deal. You are staying here, where hotel security can keep half an eye on you. Hopefully Luthor doesn’t know we’re in the area, but if he does, he likely won’t come after you here in a public place. Basic safety precautions: don’t go out on the balcony where you’re a sniper target. Don’t open the door for anyone, especially not if you hear one of us outside. We’ve all got our room keys, so there’s no reason we’d ask you to let us in.”
She looked at the other three adults, then said thoughtfully, “In fact, if we are coming in, we’ll call out the password to you so you know it’s us and we’re alone. The password will be … Bagel’s full name. Got that?”
Elise nodded; she’d been around the family long enough to know that the sweet-tempered little beagle had been a nippy puppy, and was sometimes still affectionately called Bagel Bites after the snack food. But Luthor couldn’t be expected to guess that.
“We’re going to leave the adjoining doors open, so if someone does try to get in, hustle your butts to the last room and get out by the stairwell. You should be safe surrounded by people in the lobby.” With the safety lecture concluded, Mrs. Lane-Kent hugged and kissed her son. “I love you, Jason. I wish you were safe in Smallville instead of here, but you’re too much my son for me to be surprised.”
“I love you, too, Mom,” he replied, hugging her back tightly.
Everyone seemed to be preoccupied with leave-taking again, but Mrs. White decided she had a few final words to offer. “I know both of you came out here with honorable intentions,” she told them. “But we’ll be happier knowing you’re as safe as you can be while we’re all in the same state with Luthor. In the meantime, it hasn’t escaped my notice that we’re leaving two teenagers alone in a hotel room.”
Elise felt her cheeks heat up with her blush as Jason’s jaw dropped. But the designer wasn’t finished. “You want to be treated like adults? Here’s a chance to prove you’re worthy of it. This is not a good time to resolve your differences and take advantage of the lack of supervision.”
Jason was turning an incredible shade of red. “We know that,” he stammered. “Geez, Lana, that’s the furthest thing from my mind! And we’re not even dating!”
“Good boy,” she told him, and gave him a peck on the cheek before heading into the other room.
He turned to Elise with a look of such utter mortification that she couldn’t help snickering a little in spite of her own embarrassment.