Thank god for lock-picks. It had taken twenty minutes to get the tumblers to move just right, but if there were any clues to Lex’s plans here, it was well-worth the aggravation. The warehouse seemed to be unoccupied when she threaded herself through the small space she opened between the doors, but the reporter kept her guard up anyway. Muzzle tilted up, she carried her gun in front of her, hearing focused on the slightest sound as she moved as soundless as she could through the corridors created by stacks of crates. Just what was in those crates and where they were headed, she’d love to find out, but her curiosity had to take a backseat until she was reasonably certain she really was alone.
As she crept up to a corner, Lois found herself cursing the poor lighting and her height yet again. She could barely see down the long corridors, and there were far too many pools of shadow. Worse, the acoustics were weird – her own footsteps echoed back for several seconds after she stopped moving, no matter how silent she tried to be. It all added up to a bad situation, her journalistic instincts on high-alert. Had the stakes been anything other than possibly finding her daughter, she might have gone back for reinforcements.
Or she might not have, Lois admitted to herself. She had never been known for backing down, and the more intense the pressure, the more boldly she pushed ahead. And the pressure was as intense as it had ever been. Luthor had had Kala for days now; the longer they delayed, the worse things would be for her. Lois’ patience, never limitless, was already razor-thin. So instead of doing the prudent thing and waiting for Clark, she made her way deeper into the dimly-lit warehouse.
There was every indication that no one else was there, but the hair on the back of Lois’ neck was still standing straight up while she made her way down the corridors. Trusting her hunches had rarely failed her; when the feeling started to drive her to distraction, she’d pack it in. Until then, however, she’d just stay alert. There was too much on the line to do otherwise. With that thought in mind, Lois turned to the nearest stack of crates and started scanning the labels.
Luthor wouldn’t be stupid enough to put a direct address on supplies for his underground lair, but there was every possibility that she could discover a few better hints. The reporter quickly found a few of the locations she already had in her notes. Her suspicions strengthened, she searched faster, taking notes on every possible scrap of information.
She had made it deep into the middle of the warehouse, checking out some crates from Silver Peak, when all of her internal alarms went off without warning. Asked about it later, she couldn’t say what had alerted her – a faint sound, an odd shadow, or just plain old newshound’s intuition – but she was whirling around with the gun held out, finger on the trigger and tensed for a fight.
The gun was ripped from her hands before she could fire, and even as Lois jumped backwards to get some maneuvering room she recognized her adversary. The realization chilled her before the utter fury heated her blood. “You,” she snarled as Justine Davenport – or Mercedes Graves, if that was even her real name – squared off against her. The blonde smiled coldly; Lois had never liked that smile, and it infuriated her to know this woman had been in her apartment, laughing at her while she placed listening devices. She should have listened to that nagging feeling she had had around this woman from the first.
The ferocity of that anger added weight and speed to Lois’ next move, a roundhouse punch aimed at Mercy’s sneering grin. She’d always known that hand-to-hand fighting skills were worth having, having learned that lesson on Daddy’s knee. Now those stolen hours in the gym proved their value, as Mercy’s expression suddenly became one of surprise as she just barely dodged the blow. With all the background Lex had to have on her, somehow Mercy must have missed the notation of her having been a General’s daughter.
Teeth bared in a grim smile, Lois let the missed connection spin her into a flashy backwards kick. Mercy was taller than she was, but while standing Lois could kick as high as her own head, good enough for a painful blow to the throat or chest. Mercy ducked beneath it and tried to close in, but Lois let her frustration fuel the fight. She would not be taken down so easily. Calling for Kal-El didn’t even occur to her; the reporter was too furious to think that logically. Every ounce of her being was locked onto this fight and the need to exact a little retribution.
They traded blows, some connecting, some missing, and in the fury fueled by betrayal, Lois barely felt any of them. Some distant part of her mind knew she’d have scraped knuckles and bruises, but at the moment all the General’s Daughter cared about was winning. Any injuries here were nothing in the face of the pain she’d been feeling ever since Kala had disappeared. For the first time in many days, anxiety and fear were gone, blasted away by sheer rage. She had needed a way to drive the guilt away, channel the emotional agony into something, anything constructive. And now she had it. The bitch that had stolen her little girl was right in front of her and it was like a balm to attack her with everything she had. Lois tossed her hair out of her eyes as she edged toward Mercy, hazel eyes dancing dangerously with dark humor. Oh God, there were no words for how freeing this was. “I’m almost glad Lex sent you. You have no idea how much I needed this,” she taunted before landing another blow.
The blonde closed in again, and Lois figured out her strengths and weaknesses even as she found herself in a joint-lock with her right arm at the point of breaking. Mercy Graves was a mixed-martial-arts master, deadly in her own right, and she had the kinds of moves that were impressive as well as effective.
Lois, on the other hand, had learned some jiujutsu, some aikido, some tae kwon do, and even some judo, to which she’d added the police training when she’d done those articles. She’d never had time to pursue a single form to perfection, and in recent years had relied on kickboxing classes at the gym to keep in practice. Her overall style, however, was best described as Metropolis Street Brawl: whatever worked, no matter how low-down dirty she had to get. She could pull off a fancy flying kick, or take off a shoe and beat an assailant over the head with it, whichever seemed most appropriate to the fight. And if Mercy had put the time and effort into learning that pretty elbow lock, well, she might not have had much experience with street fighting.
Turning toward the pressure on her arm, Lois stomped down hard on Mercy’s foot, scraping her shin in the process. That was painful enough to loosen the blonde’s grip, and with a sharp twist and a kick toward her vulnerable ankles, Lois was free again. Mercy broke away with a muttered curse, and they stood off from each other warily. Lois was cornered; this corridor ended in a blind wall of crates stacked to the ceiling. Mercy seemed determined to block her in. Lois just grinned fiercely. “It must suck to realize you’re getting your ass handed to you by a woman how much older than you are? Maybe you should’ve stayed home.”
Over time, their talks had drifted away from Krypton and toward Earth. At first Kala had barely noticed when Zod drew parallels to current events, but eventually he made his position plain. She had scoffed at the High Council’s willful ignorance one too many times, and Zod rebuked her. “And do you not close your eyes before the truth? Your entire society depends upon oil, a substance which you know is limited, and which grows more expensive and more difficult to acquire each year. The usage of that oil, in everything from fuel to plastics for packaging to fertilizers for the crops you consume so wastefully, upsets the balance of nature to the point where you are changing the very climate of your planet. Pollution poisons your air, your water, and your soil. And you generate so much waste that entire swaths of land are given over to its storage. In the midst of your greatest ocean there lies a region where the natural flora and fauna cannot survive, because the sheer volume of non-biodegradable plastic garbage you humans have allowed to wash into the sea crowds them out. These problems are not unknown, not hidden, but your entire society pretends they do not exist so long as you can continue your accustomed lifestyle. How, then, are you so different from Kryptonians?”
Kala’s spine stiffened. Zod had often implied that he considered her a Kryptonian, one of his own people, and now he seemed to be blaming her for the actions of the entire human race! “I am Kryptonian,” she told him haughtily. “And not all of the humans on this planet are so blind. Many of them are working to prevent further damage and to repair what has already been done.”
“Too little, and too late,” Zod replied. “Even so, you cannot deny that the vast majority would rather pursue their petty entertainments than pay attention to much more important issues. They claim such pride in their representative government, but many in this country cannot name the officials who were elected by their state, even as they can rattle off the names of a dozen so-called celebrities whose only contribution to your society is, at best, a bit of music. All know the president, but few have any understanding of who actually makes decisions closer to home.”
“Ignorance is, unfortunately, common,” Kala admitted. “Many seem to believe that the world as they know it cannot end. Rather like the Kryptonian High Council, I must admit.”
He seemed to accept the apologetic tone. “The difficulty lies in the peculiar nature of bureaucracy. One man working alone can discover much. A few people collaborating on their goals can achieve great things. Once the group grows larger, however, more opportunities arise to become sidetracked. Inevitably they become mired in interpersonal arguments and accusations, losing sight of their original goal. This is why progress moves so slowly in republics such as the one in which you presently live.”
“It is so, but that is the price of living in a democracy. Each of us has a voice, even those too apathetic to exercise their rights, and progress cannot be made without the consent of all.” Kala shrugged and leaned back in her seat, letting the artificial sunlight soak into her skin.
“It is a pity, then, that so many waste their birthright. It is an embarrassment, however, that your supposedly fair government is so easily swayed by funding. I have often found it amusing that your currency bears the legend ‘in God we trust’, for as I see it, the currency itself is worshipped more often and more fervently than any deity.”
“Corruption exists,” Kala admitted. “But eventually justice wins out. It will always be thus, if those who desire justice remain committed and do not waver.”
Zod leaned toward her slightly. “How difficult it must be for them to persevere, when they see their efforts ruined time and again by greed and apathy. Surely many of them despair, and surrender the fight, allowing profit to eclipse justice.”
Kala wished she had some way to refute that, but with so many reporters in the family, she knew it was true. All too often money and power managed to sway politicians, and the people who only wanted to serve the country’s best interests frequently got discouraged after being swept away by the tide of lobbyists. It was hard to get all of the legislators to agree on anything, considered how many different viewpoints they represented. When the issue was unpopular or the bill was detrimental to their interests, the difficulties multiplied exponentially.
“Perhaps it would be wiser, in time of crisis, for someone to take command,” Zod mused. “Surely there are provisions in your laws for such situations?”
“Martial law,” Kala replied. “The President can declare martial law and send in the troops, basically taking over. But that’s only for emergencies, and I think Congress has to approve it.”
He shook his head. “And they will not approve without much discussion. No, if anything is to be accomplished swiftly, it must be the effort of a single individual, or perhaps a very few.”
Kala was no fool; she saw where he meant to lead her. Arching her eyebrows sarcastically, she said, “Such as yourself?”
Zod didn’t seem flustered, meeting her eyes steadily. “Perhaps not I, though you cannot fault me for wishing not to see another planet crumble beneath my feet. Regardless, no human has proven capable of uniting the entire race to right their wrongs before they become irreversibly fatal. Even now, when the planet fairly groans under the weight of the human population, when nearly all the water is tainted by chemicals or sewage, when one portion of the human race dies of morbid obesity while another portion starves, when the very lungs of the planet are being clear-cut, when the air around the most ancient mountains on this continent is disfigured by a haze of pollution and the earth’s own blood is leeched from oil sands to feed the legion of vehicles belching forth yet more toxic fumes, even now there is debate. And not merely questions of how to solve these many problems, but some even question that the problems exist. Will they bicker until the last instant before the apocalypse, when only the most drastic solutions will save them? Or will they still be arguing as their own folly swallows them whole, as Krypton was devoured by Rao?”
“It is not all as dire as you claim, and progress is being made. Slowly, but it is happening. And the tide of public opinion is turning toward a more ecologically sound lifestyle,” Kala pointed out stubbornly.
“Jor-El had his followers, and some were designing ships capable of transporting our people away from the impending disaster. But he was never given the time to implement those plans. The High Council fought him up until the very last moment. He was to be arrested for treason on the very day he sent your father to this planet. Even as the planet shook with earthquakes, they denied their fate and sought to silence one who wished only to save his people.”
“How do you know this?” Kala asked. She’d never heard that little tidbit from her father or grandfather.
“I have made many attempts to access the information in the crystals, and learned much more than I was asked to discover,” Zod told her. “The fact remains that had Jor-El not turned me and mine over to the Council, our people would have lived. At that late date we would have had to evacuate the planet, but there would be no Last Sons or Daughters of Krypton. A dictator can accomplish what a democratic council cannot, for he has no need to shepherd quarreling factions into alignment.”
Kala had heard something like that before, a saying about how Lenin made the trains run on time or some such flippant remark. Everything Zod was saying was technically true – the question was, had humanity reached the point where they needed an all-powerful alien to step in and save them? Was that the real reason her father had been sent here, to do what human politicians couldn’t? Her mind spun with the possibilities.
None of this was going the way Mercy had planned. Once she’d realized she had Lois cornered and alone, she had thought it was time for a little intimidation. With the way things were going with the Lane-Kents, it was less likely that Lois would call on her husband for help. Either way it was a winning scenario; if the alien did show up, Mercy had a few small pieces of kryptonite handy, or if he didn’t, she could administer a beating and deliver a warning to Lois.
She’d known that Lois had some training, but the reporter wasn’t a dedicated martial artist, and Mercy had thought she could easily overpower the older woman. Lois’ jeer was unfortunately correct: one petite reporter was doing what a bunch of ex-cons couldn’t. Surprise at Lois’ ferocity had thrown off Mercy’s rhythm, and she was scrambling to keep up.
Worst of all, she couldn’t kill Lois. This would’ve been over in moments if she’d drawn a gun or a knife, or perhaps even if she could use some of her single-strike takedown moves. Luthor would never forgive her if she truly harmed Lois; he wanted that victory for himself.
Well, if her fists couldn’t win this fight, her voice might. “Honestly, Lane, do you think you’d be winning unless I let you?” she scoffed, disguising how out of breath she was. Lois’ only reply was a sarcastic laugh – and a furious kick that threatened to sweep Mercy’s legs out from under her. At least she could dodge that and get in a kick of her own before continuing, “I didn’t come here to kill you; I came to warn you. Back off, let it go, or instead of losing one child you’ll see your whole family slain.”
Lois snarled at her, implying several creative but anatomically impossible things, and Mercy finally managed to land a disabling blow to the solar plexus. Lois went down, too blinded by rage to dodge the last punch, but Mercy wasn’t sure of her yet. The last thing she needed was to slip in close and wind up severely hurt, so she kept up the flow of acid words. “Come on now, Kala’s been causing so much trouble in your family the last year or so. Isn’t it something of a relief to have her gone? Can’t you see how much easier things would be without her?”
Mercy knew full well that Lois would never stop – she’d keep coming after her child until Luthor killed her. The so-called warning was meant to inflame her guilt; Mercy had watched the family long enough to know that Lois was unsure of herself as a parent. The implication that she would actually prefer her daughter kidnapped would wound her, and throw her even further off balance.
Sucking in a gasping breath, Lois spat, “I’ll get Kala back if I have to turn the whole state of Nevada upside-down to do it. She’s my daughter, you sick psychotic bitch.”
“Not for much longer,” Mercy commented, taking a wary step away as the reporter lurched to her feet. She might be faking her level of pain and incapacitation. “Surely you’ve heard of Stockholm Syndrome? Another day or two, and she’ll be ours. Quite frankly, she was always a little closer to our side of things than to her father’s, don’t you think? The wardrobe should have been a hint.”
The words had even more effect than Mercy expected, as Lois abandoned caution to attack her with an incoherent snarl of rage and more ferocity than she had yet displayed.