Flying ever-larger spirals while examining the ground, Kal-El had been widening his search pattern. Desert sand gave way to stone riddled with old mines and mineral deposits, with here and there some silver that had remained undiscovered. His hearing was tightly focused on the particular rhythm of Kala’s heartbeat, hoping against hope that he would be able to find it and follow it to wherever she was. Every hour, every day longer that he couldn’t find her tore at his heart, tore at the determination that she was all right, only a captive. Jason swore he would know if she was hurt, always had, but just having his child in the clutches of his old enemy burned. They had no way of knowing what could be happening, no way to control the situation at all. Every fiber of his being was locked into finding some clue, any clue, to where Luthor had her held.
Few things could distract him in that state, but a loud concussive thump got his attention. Kal-El pulled up short, looking toward the sound. Off to the west, he heard a familiar greedy roar, and saw flames shooting toward the sky. “Coal mine fire,” he muttered, cursing duty. That was too close to populated areas to ignore, and mine fires had a nasty way of traveling underground.
Even as he flew toward it, Kal-El knew this was one of Luthor’s diversions. Unfortunately, the megalomaniac knew him too well. He couldn’t ignore the risk to innocent lives and focus solely on his own family, no matter how much he wanted to.
Wait – this might be a good time to call in the League. Hadn’t they almost forcibly pressed him to let them help where they could? It was true that they were already keeping an eye out for the extended family, which was more than he could ask for, but with the trail growing warmer in the search for his daughter, maybe it couldn’t hurt…
Only when he took out his cell phone, he saw a text message from Oracle marked ‘Urgent’. Opening the file, he was shocked to see the code phrase, ‘Blackjack tournament now in progress!’ That was a call to everyone everywhere to help on multiple fronts. Kal-El listened in on the Watchtower, and overheard calls for assistance going out to several cities. All of the other heroes were tied up in some kind of nationwide crime wave…
…oh, no. Luthor couldn’t be that devious, could he? What if while the heroes were uniting to combat crime, their foes had been forming alliances, too? The thought turned Kal-El’s stomach to acid. The havoc being unleashed on his colleagues was all his fault.
There would be no help for him now or in the immediate future. He went to extinguish the mine fire, hoping to lose only precious minutes in battling the blaze. Somewhere, something was happening that Luthor didn’t want him to know about. Despite the unease he felt knowing that Luthor was causing chaos for the rest of the world to throw him off, a bright spark of hope flared in his chest, and he gave a small smile as he went about the task. They were close now. They had to be.
The silence of the warehouse was punctured by the sounds of flesh on flesh and fast breath, neither woman giving the slightest ground as they circled one another. Lois ducked out of the younger woman’s reach and got in a nice sharp swing, her elbow connecting with Mercy’s cheek. By the force of the blow traveling up her arm she knew the other woman would have a black eye tomorrow. The reporter felt only savage glee at the thought – until she took a hard punch to the solar plexus that knocked the wind out of her and dropped her to the ground.
As she rolled away, trying to catch her breath, Lois realized that Mercy had let her take that last shot, just to get the opening for the knockdown move. It only made her more furious, until she realized the blonde was backing off. Once she was out of range, her voice still breathless, Mercy managed, “Back down now, and I promise you, we’ll let Kala go when we’re through with her – if she even wants to leave.”
Another flare of white-hot hatred. It was almost laughable; they thought they understood her family inside and out? Six months of surveillance, and they hadn’t learned a thing. “You’re both crazy,” Lois managed to gasp. “Kala would never choose Luthor over us.” Beneath the pallet of crates beside her, she saw something out of the corner of her eye that gleamed chrome: the Ladysmith. Pretending to writhe in pain, she surreptitiously reached out for her gun.
The taunt that came next was utterly unanticipated. “Who said I’m talking about Luthor?” That caught Lois’ attention, the blonde’s grin coldly malicious as she savored her reaction. “Lois, you don’t know who we’re working with. Besides, I must admit that Luthor’s rather too fixated on you. We do have recordings of every single word you’ve ever spoken – or whispered, or moaned, or screamed – in that apartment.”
Nausea rolled through Lois then, but she refused to show weakness to her friends and family. She’d never allow this psycho to see it. Mercy was trying to pull her strings, dole out this little stomach-roiling tidbit to keep her off-balance. In spite of her disgust, Lois wouldn’t let her. She laughed instead, hearing a crazed edge in her own voice. “Really? I hope Lex enjoyed it. It’s the closest he’ll ever get, and you know he’s just dying of jealousy. I should be so lucky.” Even while her stomach tried to climb up and out of her throat, Lois stayed focused on the gun, just out of reach of her fingertips. Another inch and she’d have it…
Mercy beamed down at her with all the cold impersonality of the moon. “Fortunately for him, I don’t suffer from the particular lack of self-esteem that results in possessiveness. A lesser woman wouldn’t be so forgiving of Lex for all the times he’s said your name.”
The blatant reminder brought up her gorge, the memories of how he had done the same thing to poor Katherine a decade ago sickening her. She couldn’t hold back a yell of incoherent rage. Forget stealth; Mercy had just gone too far. The reporter stopped even trying to hide the motion as she clawed beneath the pallet. Finally managing to seize the gun, Lois whipped around to fire upward from the floor, but the blonde was already gone.
Wincing from the pain she was just now starting to feel, she sat there and caught her breath. Just you wait, bitch. You’ll get yours. This isn’t the end of this. Not by a long shot.
All of the drainage canals had signs warning of flash flood dangers. Trespassing carried a serious fine, too, but Jason was well past worrying about that. He and Elise were trying to look like ordinary teenagers out for a stroll, just glancing casually at the steep concrete walls of the drainage canal. That became more difficult once they reached the outskirts of town.
Jason felt uncomfortably exposed. They were the only things moving out here on the flat, sandy plain, except for a cold wind finding its way inside his jacket. “I don’t like this,” he murmured to Elise. “Let’s get down out of sight.”
“Do you really think we should be walking down there?” she countered, pointedly gazing at their surroundings. “I mean, they put up the warning signs for a reason.”
Jason tried to soothe her with a smile. “Elise, calm down. There are emergency ladders to climb out. At least that way we’re not standing up here making perfect targets of ourselves. And the GPS point was in the canal itself.”
Elise wavered, but when he strode purposefully to the nearest ladder, she followed him down, muttering under her breath about how getting slapped with a thousand-dollar trespassing charge was the absolute best way in the world for her parents to find out she wasn’t home.
The bottom of the canal was creepy as hell; the two teens walked on a layer of fine silt strewn with branches, tumbleweeds, and at least one mummified-looking skeleton of some small animal. Elise stopped looking so closely after that, keeping near to Jason and making sure to spot each emergency ladder ahead. He didn’t make fun of her like a lot of guys would, just reached out and caught her hand in his. “You’re safe with me.” Her heart did a funny little flip in her chest at the serious expression on his face.
Of course she had to blow that off with some sarcasm. “What, you’ve got Superman on speed dial or something?”
Jason scoffed, running a hand through his hair. It was always kind of funny how he got embarrassed when anyone brought up his godfather. “Yeah, right. I’m the guy, I have to say that. But I expect you to have the sense to run if we need to, not wait for me to pick you up and carry you off.”
Elise returned the snarky tone immediately. “And if we have to fight, I expect you to kick some butt right alongside me, okay? I don’t know if you even know how to fight, but every girl who lives in Metropolis ought to take some self-defense…”
Another sarcastic snort from her ex. “I’ll go you one better. Five years of karate. And sixteen years of Kala.” The mention of her name aloud silenced them, both looking awkward, and they kept their eyes on the ground as they moved further along the canal.
The floor of it sloped downward steadily, growing deeper, but so gradually that from the teens’ perspective, it was the walls beside them that grew higher. Obviously the closer to the reservoir, the deeper the channels had to be. Further down, the floodwaters would be dispersed along the canal network, running lower, but this close to the source they’d overbuilt to protect against runoff.
What that meant, for Jason and Elise, was that if they needed to use the emergency ladders, they would have to climb over thirty feet. That made him uneasy, but they were getting closer to the coordinates, so they kept on.
The canal they were in joined the main one, which they had to descend five feet to get into. Jason scanned ahead for the next ladder and saw it, then dropped down to the floor of the main canal. “Come on,” he said to Elise, who hesitated.
“Jason, I don’t like this.” Her voice was small, her grey eyes sweeping over their surroundings again.
He stretched his hand up to her, and after a moment Elise jumped, letting him catch her. “We’re getting closer. Maybe another five minutes.” They moved on in silence, Jason checking his cell phone to make sure they were in the right spot. When they arrived, it didn’t seem any different from any other section of the canal floor. Jason scowled; his x-ray vision showed nothing beneath the concrete except sand. Maybe it wasn’t under the canal, maybe there was an access door in the side? He looked around slowly, aware of Elise searching the vicinity. Frustrated, he turned in a circle, wishing Uncle Bruce could’ve put in a hint or two.
Elise stood with her arms crossed, eyes raised far above them. “I don’t think there’s anything here.” Curious what she had seen, Jason followed her gaze. The steeply sloping walls of the concrete ravine were almost sixty feet high at this point.
Sighing in defeat, Jason shook his head. “We’ll have to turn this over to Mom and Dad. I guess we might as well go, and hope no one…”
…sees us, was the rest of the sentence, but it died on his lips. Jason’s hearing wasn’t as keen as his father’s, but it was better than any human’s, and he went white as chalk so quickly it frightened Elise. “Jason?”
The man crouched down, and Richard remembered that their laptop was in the trunk, along with all of Lois’ notes that he’d managed to get copied onto it. They’d decided against bringing a computer into the records hall because it might look fishy, but had prudently decided to leave the expensive computer locked up out of sight.
“Stay here,” Richard hissed, and headed out the side door. The man might just be an ordinary thief, but they couldn’t run any risk of those files falling into Luthor’s hands. And besides, Richard was angry, full of frustrated wrath after the kidnapping of his daughter and the attack on his wife. He didn’t let himself plan for it, didn’t think to call Clark in, just wove through the parking lot keeping some of the larger vehicles between himself and the thief.
Combat training was years behind him, but some things stay in the memory. Perhaps most of the family had forgotten that Richard was a military man; he never had. He had signed up both to serve his country and to learn to fly, but they’d taught him far more than that. What if he’d been shot down? He would need to know how to survive wherever he landed. So he could go camping with the kids out in Smallville, lead them off into the woods with nothing more than a compass and good knife, and they’d pass the night in relative comfort thanks to his training.
It was possible that he could have been shot down over a city, so he’d learned urban survival too. It had more in common with rough country tactics than he’d thought, and he’d come to view the city as another sort of wilderness, one that could be even more savage. At least in the wild, most things would only kill you to protect themselves or to eat you.
In stalking, he’d learned the two C’s, camouflage and cover. Not much chance to camouflage himself, not when Luthor’s spies already knew what he looked like, so he relied on the cover of the parked cars to circle around his quarry and come at the man from a direction he wouldn’t expect. Richard drew on every bit of stealth he possessed, the same skills that let him sneak up on Lois and tickle her, but now he used them in deadly earnest once again.
When he got in position to approach, there were no more vans to cover him, so Richard slipped off his shoes and crept as close as he dared, crouching behind cars. The world had narrowed to him and his quarry, the rest of the environment mere scenery that he wouldn’t notice unless it moved. The thief was intent on his work, and Richard braced himself to rush at him, his fury growing at the man’s brazen robbery in full daylight. For once he wished he carried a gun like Lois, but he had left that behind when he got out of the service. There were usually better solutions to problems in the civilian world than a few ounces of lead delivered at high speed.
Too late for that. Richard heard the trunk open, and lunged around the corner of the car at the thief. Once in motion, he was committed, putting every ounce of his strength into acceleration. He’d always kept in shape, always been ready for this, though he hadn’t known when or where it would happen, and his mind was almost empty except for anger that burned clear and bright as thermite. The man didn’t even hear him coming, his socked feet almost silent on the asphalt, and Richard tackled him to the ground in one explosive rush.
The hope that this was just a common thief evaporated instantly as the man fought back, making it clear that he’d had some kind of formal training. He was quick, but he’d lost the initiative, and he could only react, trying to fend off Richard’s punches. They scuffled on the ground, Richard using every dirty trick he’d ever learned, and some he invented on the spot. He was taking blows but he didn’t feel the pain, didn’t realize he’d scraped both knees bloody on the pavement.
One of them was growling, wordless rage chilling to hear, and as the other man grabbed Richard’s throat, the sound gurgled. That was when Richard knew it was him making that noise, but he didn’t care, butted his head sharply forward and felt the thief’s nose break beneath his forehead. Pain should’ve stopped the other man, but he was running on adrenaline too, and it only broke his hold long enough for Richard to grab his wrist and twist it savagely.
At last an elbow driven sharply into the other man’s chin laid the thief out cold, and Richard had a chance to catch his breath. Fury and training seemed to drip from his pores like the sweat that sprang up all over his skin, and as those drained, sanity returned. He was Richard White again, husband, father, journalist, pilot, and practical joker. All that remained of First Lieutenant R. J. White was his knowledge. He tilted the thief’s head aside so he wouldn’t choke on the blood from his broken nose, then slipped his belt off and wound it around the man’s wrists to hold him.
“The police are on their way,” Lana said from right beside them, startling him badly. Richard tried to glare at her for not staying inside where she’d be relatively safe, but her next words sent a chill racing down his spine. “Clark isn’t answering his phone – and neither is Lois.”
Feeling the blood drain from his face, Jason grabbed Elise by the wrist, wishing then that he had speed instead of strength. “Run,” he snapped. She came with him, his grip inexorable, trying to ask why, but within seconds she heard it: water, a roaring wall of it, coming their way.
Too late, Jason remembered how often he’d been warned about phishing emails, that programming existed to mask the true sender’s address. Uncle Bruce hadn’t sent the coordinates. This was a trap, and he’d run right into it like the amateur he was.
Elise barely managed to keep up, both of them running with every ounce of speed and desperation. The nearest ladder was right after the canal they’d followed to get here, and they got to it in mere seconds. Jason’s head buzzed with adrenaline, keeping the part of him that was screaming in terror locked deep inside. He couldn’t afford to break down; Elise needed him. Now he regretted bringing her out here, wished he had left her back in Metropolis. She’d be safe with Sebast right now if he had. But since he’d been selfish enough to allow her to risk her life, it was his responsibility to make sure she didn’t have to pay that price.
Still, they had fifty feet to climb with a flash flood bearing down on them hungrily. Jason grabbed Elise by the hips and lifted her up over his head, as high as he could reach, ignoring the startled sound she made. That gave her almost a six foot head start, and she scrambled up the ladder, her boots drumming on the metal rungs. He followed a little more slowly, not wanting to run up over her heels. Besides, he might be able to survive being caught in the flood – he could swim strongly enough to keep his head above water, and the flow would disperse eventually.
He could hear Elise panting, could imagine the burn she must be feeling in her arms and legs, but she wasn’t the kind of girl to fall to pieces in a crisis. She knew she had to keep climbing in spite of the pain, so she went up the ladder as fast as she could. Jason paused to look over his shoulder, focusing his vision past the concrete walls and the sand they held. The flood was far enough away, they could make it…
Elise screamed above him, surprise and horror, and Jason looked up to see her falling from near the top of the wall. He leaped backward off the ladder, landed sure-footedly on the ground, and caught her before she could break a leg. Caught her awkwardly, nothing heroic about it, one hand on her breast, but there was no time to worry about it because she grabbed his arms for balance and he felt something oily smearing against his skin.
Her hands were covered in something dark, slippery.
Someone had greased the ladder – the same someone who sent them that email.
The flood was coming, too close to try again even if the next ladder was safe.
They were doomed.
Jason put his arm around Elise’s waist, lifted her, and ran as fast as he could. He leaped, not up but out, covering more ground with each stride than a racehorse. Maybe it would be enough; if he could get them to where the canal was shallower, he could jump ten or twelve feet straight up and get them out.
He’d forgotten they were in the main canal, not the tributary they’d followed coming in. It continued absolutely level sixty feet beneath the surface of the ground, and the flood roared hungrily behind him. Too late, out of time, and Jason had no other choices left. He screamed in desperation, “Dad, help us! DAD!”
The liar, the honest
This is War.
To the leader, the pariah,
The victim, the messiah
This is war.
It's the moment of truth
And the moment to lie.
The moment to live
And the moment to die.
The moment to fight,
The moment to fight,
To fight, to fight, to fight
To the right, To the left,
We will fight to the death…