Leading them to the first turn, Kal-El listened intently before peering around the edge. He levitated nearly to the ceiling to do so, in case someone was waiting for him to peak around at head-height. But there was nothing to be seen. The aisle ended in another turn. Quickly, Kal-El motioned them to hurry past, and left Jason and Lois guarding that aisle while he checked the other.
He returned to them in seconds. “They both end in turns, and I can’t see through the walls. All of the crates are either lead-lined, made of lead alloy, or filled with objects made of lead. He’s got this covered.”
The three of them glanced from one aisle to the other, knowing the choice had to be made. There was no way to decide which one to choose, though. The sound of the machinery echoed off the bare walls and down the corridors made of metal crates, turning the place into the auditory equivalent of a mirror maze.
In the end, the entire set-up of the room left them with no choice. Knowing that, Kal-El made one of the toughest decisions of his life. “It’s obvious. We have to split up.”
Jason was the first to speak as Lois stared at him, frowning. “Dad, no. We have to stick together.”
“We can’t risk picking the wrong aisle. Luthor knows the layout, we don’t. That makes it all too easy for him to circle around us. Or he could get out, taking Kala with him. We can’t let that happen. The only option left is to split up.” Ten years ago, Lois had made the choice no one else could, and now that duty fell to her husband. He looked steadily at both of them, stony-eyed and implacable. If he let the slightest hint of his fear show, neither of them would agree to the plan. Especially since he meant to send them off together and explore the farther passage on his own.
Lois was already shaking her, dark curls flying. “No. I don’t like it, not in this close of quarters. Not with your vision and hearing mostly on the blitz. This is a bad idea, Kal-El.” Unconsciously, her hand rose to the locket around her neck, rubbing the topaz worriedly.
He overrode her, inexorably patient. “You two take the nearer corridor. You’ll be safer together. I’ll take the far one. It’s the only logical choice.”
“Screw logic,” Jason snapped. “How about we knock down a few of these walls so we can actually see around here?”
“Look up. Do you see what’s not there?” When Jason scowled at his father’s question, Kal-El explained. “The roof structure looks normal for a building this size. But that doesn’t account for the weight of the lead shielding it. The cross-braces I see aren’t adequate to bear the load. If we move too many of the crates, or the wrong ones, we could bring the whole roof down on our heads.”
Stymied, Jason turned a look of mute pleading on his mother. Surely if anyone could talk Kal-El out of this, it was her. And Lois was decidedly unhappy about it. “So we have no choice, huh? He knows the two of you could do it and probably survive, but the debris would crush me,” she muttered bitterly, tightening her jaw. “That sonofabitch. He’s going to split us up whether we like it or not.” She took a deep breath then, bracing herself. “There’s no other way around it? You’re sure? Because I don’t like this.”
He only nodded, feeling certainty like an iron weight in his heart. With a troubled expression, she finally acquiesced. “All right. God, it’s déjà vu all over again. But you be careful, Kal-El. I don’t want another replay of last time.” Her voice had begun soft and hesitant, but turned fierce again at the end.
“I will.” Kal-El spoke the words in spite of the growing chill in his soul. Then he turned his attention to Jason. “Your mother has more experience with this sort of thing than you do, so listen to her, and watch her back.”
Jason’s hatred of this idea could not be adequately expressed in words, but he seemed to be outvoted. All he could manage to say was, “Yes, sir.” Kal-El turned and walked away, and Jason swallowed the lump in his throat as he watched him go.
Trying to quell the loop this had thrown her for, Lois watched his back for a minute before catching Jason’s sleeve. “C’mon,” Lois murmured gently. “Besides, I plan to give your Dad about ten minutes to investigate his side and if he doesn’t come back, we’re going after him. Luthor does have kryptonite around here, I’m sure, and I’m not willing to lose either of you. The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can get the hell out of here. All four of us.”
Jason heartily agreed to that. He followed close behind her as they continued down the aisle, straining his vision and hearing to the limit. All he got for his efforts was a headache.
Soon they came to another branching, with turns in both corridors. Lois eyed both paths, then turned to Jason. Before she could speak, he muttered, “No way, Mom. You stay right here, I’ll check out both options and see what’s around the bend.”
That earned him a black look, the reporter glaring at him. “You’re expecting me to let my son walk straight into what could be a trap? When I’m the one holding a gun? Uh-huh, nope. I didn’t bring you down here so you could get ambushed. I’ll go.” She was already shouldering him aside when he caught her arm.
“Mom? You don’t have any invulnerability. At least I have a little of it.” Jason’s earnest expression pleaded with her. “I won’t be out of your sight. And if there’s someone around the corner, I’ve got enough powers to deal with them – assuming I don’t hear them before I see them.”
It was a situation she had never wanted to be in: either she allowed Jason to do this, let him go ahead into almost certain danger with his powers to protect him. Or take the second tunnel and have him distracted by worry for her. There had to be a third option. He was right, truth be told, but she couldn’t let him do it. This was worse than any blackmail Luthor had ever had on her and she had no doubt that he’s known they would be forced to make these decisions when he designed it. The heartless bastard. “No, sweetheart, I can’t let you…”
Jason was torn. He had been a mostly obedient child all of his life, but he could not hang back and let his mother walk into danger. Neither option would let his heart rest easy. When in doubt, Jason could only choose the path that kept his mother safe, no matter how wrong it felt to disobey her. “Mom, stay here,” he said, and the words had barely left his mouth before he dashed to the corner of the first passageway.
His heart was hammering in his ears, but he could still hear Lois’ shocked gasp. And he could also hear nothing but echoes around the corner. Jason peeked out carefully, wishing he had more of his father’s speed. He was quicker than any human, but Dad could have done this and been back before Lois’ mouth began to frame the first startled exclamation.
Nothing around this corner; it dead-ended into the exterior wall of the building. Jason wasted no more time on it, racing back past Lois and to the end of the other turnoff. Again, he peered around the corner, making sure to keep his body hidden behind the stacks of crates. That corridor continued to yet another turn, and the sound of machinery was louder, but it was just as deserted.
Jason was back at Lois side in a handful of heartbeats, reporting his findings. “The first one’s a dead end, the second continues. Both are deserted. Let’s go.”
Before he could even take a step further, Mom had the front of his shirt and had pulled him down to her level. Her breath was coming quick and fast, hazel eyes wide when she hissed in frightened anger, her voice breaking. “Don’t you ever do that again! Don’t you dare just speed off face-first into whatever could be lying in wait for you, especially not when I’m in mid-sentence! Jason, I’m your mother! I’m supposed to be protecting you! That’s my job! I did a bad enough job with Kala and now I’m paying for it. I’m not letting him get you, too!”
Jason caught her hands, his blue eyes full of compassion. But there was a hint of something else there, a sternness she’d never seen in him before. “Mom. We have to protect each other. Because you are my mother and I’m not going to let Luthor corner you again. So I’ll look after you, and you’ll look after me, and we both do a pretty darn good job of it.” He paused, and smiled sadly. “Kala’s not your fault. You know that, right? It’s not your fault or hers that Luthor has her. Blame the person who deserves it. He’s the one who started all of this.”
In that moment, Lois could only stare up at him with swell of affection only a mother could know. She’d never known a moment when she was more proud of him, even if she could just shake him for scaring her. Looking back at her was the man – the hero – she had always known that he’d eventually become. And seeing that made her heart ache for her daughter all the more.
But now wasn’t the time for a panic-attack. The General’s Daughter didn’t break down on the battlefield. Kala was somewhere in this facility and they had to get her out. Despite her anxiety, maybe Jason was right; they needed to work together. Her hands slowly released his shirt, Lois heaving a heavy sigh. “Jason, it really is at least somewhat my fault; neither of us can change the reality of that. But you’re right. We should be working together. Besides, we have to track your dad down before long.” Drawing away and getting herself under control, she jerked her head the why he had returned. “Let’s go.”
Jason fell in behind her, alert to any slightest sound of a threat. Once more, they came to a fork in the path. This time when Jason moved to look before her, Lois bit her lip against a protest and only whispered to him to crouch down. He saw the sense in that; anyone looking for them would expect someone to peer around at head height, and might miss movement closer to the ground. With his powers and her wisdom, they made a good team.
The sound of machinery was getting louder the further they went. Jason figured they were roughly in the center of the building. Around one more corner, the space suddenly opened up. Jason peeked to make sure it was safe, and saw nothing but a series of air-handling machines with ducts leading to vents in the floor. “You were right,” he murmured. “Everything’s underground. This is where they’re pumping air down to whatever’s under the floor.” He remembered noticing vents along the roofline of the building, but had thought nothing of it at the time.
Lois only nodded. They moved cautiously into the space, wary of any potential trap. “We need to get down there,” the reporter muttered. “All of this is just stage-dressing. Wherever he has Kala, it’s down there somewhere.” She and Jason looked for an access panel, but couldn’t find any such thing. It seemed that the only way to get down from here was through the vents themselves, and the openings were far too narrow for a person to pass through.
Glancing at her watch, Lois was surprised to realize they had only used up a few minutes of the time she’d allowed them before they went in search of Kal-El. She knew that the wisest course was to return to him and see if the route he’d chosen through this maze led to a better access point. But a part of her would not let her turn back. Kala could be only a few feet away at this point. What if Luthor was holding her right there, beneath the air ducts, and all of his attention was focused on Kal-El? She and Jason could spirit Kala out before anyone even knew they were here…
Lois lost all chance of squashing that wild hope when Jason knelt beside one of the vents and looked at it thoughtfully. “Mom, I bet I could widen this with heat-vision. We could pull the duct aside and slip in the air shaft. The space below is big enough for you to stand, even though I’m gonna have to duck.”
She couldn’t turn away. Part of her hated leaving Kal-El alone to face whatever waited down his path. The rest of her, however, couldn’t resist the possibility of getting this over with. They had to find Kala. There was no time to waste. Lois hadn’t forgotten Mercy’s snide comments about Stockholm Syndrome, and knew that they had to get to Kala before she broke under the mental strain of captivity.
“Do it,” Lois told her son, and stood nearby, gun at the ready in case they were discovered. He wasted no time, pulling the duct out and catching hold of the edge of the floor. His heat vision sizzled through concrete, with an occasional pause to cut the rebar that supported the structure. Lois saw that they would be through the widened hole in seconds, and took a deep breath, hoping Kal-El was okay. She’d had a bad feeling about this from the moment they started discussing it.
Kal-El found himself having to stop and figure out where he was in relation to the overall layout of the building. The twists and turns of the corridors had been designed to confuse anyone who came here by accident. At least he could keep track of Lois and Jason’s heartbeats. The familiar rhythms were hard to catch in the cacophony of overlapping machinery noises, but he knew them so well he could still lock on to them – just barely.
He eventually came to a wider area somewhere in the back of the building. A large freight elevator, just a hydraulic platform with a single guard rail, stood in the middle of the floor. So there was something beneath this level. Kal-El peered downward, but his vision was oddly grainy. Furrowing his brow, he rested his eyes by looking around the space.
Ah, that explained things. Sitting on the elevator platform was a bucket of paint. It looked ancient, the metal lid rusting and the label faded. When Kal-El focused on it, the contents were semi-opaque. Trust Luthor to have found a source of leaded paint – the stuff had been outlawed in the U.S. for years due to the danger of children ingesting it. It had just enough lead to slightly cloud Kal-El’s vision. The ceiling of the level below was probably painted.
But Luthor had made a single mistake, and Kal-El grinned fiercely. The upper surface was bare concrete, and the elevator was bare metal. X-Ray vision worked just fine on it, giving him a window into the room below. Kal-El circled the elevator, not wanting to step on it until he’d made sure it wasn’t booby-trapped.
It seemed to lead to another stockroom, this one filled with more ordinary supplies. Kal-El remembered the strange thefts of medical equipment years ago when his gaze lit on some of the crates down there. Entire cases of laboratory glassware, protective goggles and clothing, Bunsen burners, and various chemicals lined the walls. Kal-El wouldn’t let himself wonder exactly why Luthor needed those items, not when his daughter was captive somewhere below.
What seemed stranger was the amount of salt. There were huge boxes labeled NaCl, which was ordinary table salt. Why on earth would Luthor need great quantities of salt? Kal-El could imagine no use for it.
He shrugged it off. The room below wasn’t wired for traps, but he had no intention of using the lift anyway. He didn’t want to announce his presence. Instead, he used another trick, and spun in place. The friction of his boots, which were protected by his invulnerability, wore away the concrete. Soon he standing in a drift of pale dust, looking around the room below.
A long hall led off in two directions, which weren’t marked. Kal-El chose the right, sidling quietly along with his ears straining in two directions. He was seeking both information about his surroundings and trying to keep tabs on Lois and Jason. Unfortunately, the huge motor that powered the lift was in this room, and its idle cycle sounded much like a great heart throbbing right beside him. Kal-El was almost deafened by it, and increased his pace to get some distance from the sound that echoed fiercely off the concrete walls.
Once he was gone, Zod rose from behind the massive piece of machinery, and set off down the other hall to intercept his target at the intersection of the two paths.
Lois hated the air ducts. She and Jason were in the center hub of a network of radiating ducts, and the force of the air blowing down them wrecked both her hair and her nerves. It could be worse, she told herself firmly. At least she could stand and walk easily. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to do this in the kind of narrow metal ventilation ducts common in buildings. The reporter had crawled through them a time or two while chasing a story, but it wasn’t her idea of fun.
Jason stood beside her, looking worriedly around the area. He had set down the piece of concrete his heat vision had carved out from around the duct, placing it where it would make a good step for Lois to get back out quickly. But now he was somewhat at a loss. They had six passageways to choose from, leading in all different directions. The air handling machinery was so loud that he couldn’t even listen for potential leads at the entrance of each path.
The reporter swore under her breath. Lois saw how this had to work, but she didn’t have to like it. All of the tunnels were slightly curved, so the noise might fade out a little around the bend. One of them would have to go down each shaft and listen for any hint of where the tunnel might lead. The other would have to guard this central hub so no one could creep up on them. And Lois knew Jason’s hearing was better than hers, just as her fast reflexes and loaded gun were better suited to guard duty.
But she hated it, every maternal instinct in her body screaming No! Still, she gritted her teeth and forced herself to speak calmly. “Jason, you’ll have to go a little ways down each of these. Just far enough so the machinery isn’t blocking your hearing. Listen, then come back and tell me what you heard before going to the next. It’s the only way we can figure out which one to follow.”
The thought of giving up and going back to Dad didn’t even occur to Jason. He could feel Kala’s presence somewhere. She was further away than he’d hoped, but she was much closer than she had been for days, and his heart hammered. He nodded to Lois and headed down the first tunnel.
He had to go quite a ways before the roar of the air handlers faded enough, and then he heard nothing of interest. Jason had hoped for a snippet of conversation, something to indicate where people were, but so far this place seemed deserted. If not for that strange sense of empathy between himself and Kala, he would have given up. But he knew she was here, and he came out of the first tunnel to plunge directly into the second. That one ran much straighter, and he had to go even further before he could get a clear reading of the sounds. It too was disappointingly quiet.
When he came out of that one, Jason saw that Mom had wisely positioned herself with her back to the first, empty tunnel. He had never been more glad of her vast experience and sharp mind. She thought of everything. “Love you, Mom,” he said with a grin, and ducked down the third passageway. He was no longer surprised to find it blank as well. Perhaps only one of the air shafts was useful.
Jason popped out of the third tunnel and Lois winked at him bravely. “Love you too,” she called, her keen gaze never leaving the unexplored areas as he dove down the fourth passage. This was another long one, and he was quite some distance from the center when he heard the first faint sound of a voice.
He froze, the hair on the nape of his neck standing up. It wasn’t clear at all, but he knew that tone. It was Kala’s voice, raised in anger, and it electrified him. “Mom, she’s here!” he called back down the tunnel to Lois, and took off in the direction of his twin’s voice.
Lois, meanwhile, heard something behind her. Jason had already checked that tunnel, and she whirled, her gun aimed and her heart pounding. She heard Jason shout, but couldn’t make out the words because of the echoes.
Before she could turn and run to him she heard another voice, much closer. Lois’ heart turned to ice. She had been listening to that voice for sixteen years, from the first colicky cries to the sarcastic remarks of Kala’s adolescence. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t understand the words. That was her baby, her finicky, frustrating, forever-beloved little girl, and Lois ran, calling over her shoulder, “Jason, come on!”
Not waiting for him to catch up, Lois pursued the echo of her daughter’s voice down the tunnel. At one point it began to slope downwards, and Lois scrambled to keep from falling. She ended up at a t-junction, holding her breath to hear better.
There. To her left, Kala called out for her mother, fear and pain mingled in her voice. The ice melted, Lois’ heart burning like a miniature sun in her chest. She’d come to Nevada knowing she would have to kill Luthor to end this. Hearing Kala cry out just made it easier to do. You’ll never hurt her again, she thought furiously, and ran headlong toward the sound.
At the next turn Lois checked herself more out of habit than anything else. She was too well-trained, by her father and Maggie, to simply burst around a corner while in enemy territory. She paused to listen, heard Kala whimper, and flung herself around the corner with the gun in front of her.
Her instant of hesitation saved her. She didn’t even know she was under fire until she saw concrete chips fly up from the wall in front of her. Lois’ finger was already inside the trigger guard when she saw that, and her sharp eyes flew toward movement up the hall. Even with adrenaline roaring through her veins, Lois recognized Luthor’s bald head, and she fired while she was still in motion.
Luthor ducked around a corner, and Lois hurriedly flung herself behind the only cover available: the same corner she’d just darted out from. Her hands were shaking, her mind racing; she was so close, Kala was right nearby, and here was her chance to end this nightmare forever. She slid down the wall and peered around.
Her own Ladysmith, the one Luthor had stolen from her aboard the yacht ten years ago, was aimed at her. The first bullet had missed her by only inches, but Luthor wasn’t a practiced shooter, and his next shot was off by a foot or more. That heartened Lois, and she snapped off two return shots that drove him back behind his own corner. The first was wide, but at the second one Lois saw paint chips fly up right where Luthor’s head had been a moment ago.
Her head rang with gunfire and the echoes thereof. Lois pressed herself against the wall, forcing herself to breathe slowly and quietly. Right now they were in deadlock, both of them sticking to cover. Someone had to break it, and Lois waited for Luthor to make the first move. The scene around the corner was fixed in her mind, and her entire being was focused on swinging around to bring her gun to bear on Luthor’s chest. She only had to wait for his impatience to force him to break cover. He didn’t have her training, he wouldn’t be able to wait.
Lois heard a shoe scuff, and launched herself. In a single smooth motion she whipped around the corner, gun at the ready, finger already squeezing the trigger. But the corridor was empty except for a single shoe lying a few feet out from the wall.
Oh, fuck! She saw the trap and skidded, diving back under cover. But something caught her shoulder and spun her in midair. Lois slammed against the wall behind her, the gun clattering from her numb hand. Her whole arm was hot and distant.
That didn’t matter, she had to get up, had to move, get out of the line of fire before he managed to hit her. Only when she tried to use her right hand to rise did the pain come, blooming like fire in her should. Lois cried out and fell, realizing the sleeve of her dark blue shirt had gone black. I’m hit, she thought dazedly, still trying to struggle back to her feet.
A sudden impact to her midsection flung her against the wall again, and Lois pressed her hand against her stomach. Hot blood spilled over her fingers as she stared down at herself. Her mind had vapor-locked. This wasn’t supposed to happen. This wasn’t supposed to be. Luthor was the one who would die here, not her.
A shadow fell over her, and Lois looked up dazedly. Luthor stood there, a hard, triumphant smile on his face. “Hello, Lois,” he said, his voice rough. That jump-started her brain, and Lois tried to reach for her gun with her left hand. He had kicked it away, though, and blood loss was already making her too weak to do anything more than stare up at him in disbelief. It couldn’t end like this…
He bent down, grabbed the locket from around her neck, and yanked it off. The sting as the chain snapped barely registered to Lois. “I think I’ll keep this,” he mused, his greedy eyes drinking in every drop of her pain and helplessness.
I’m not gonna die here, at your hands, Lois thought rebelliously, while a part of her knew better. And she knew that if she died – she would never reconcile with Kala, never see her sweet boy again, never get to enjoy her reunion with Kal-El – but they would never stop hunting Luthor. She could only pray as she’d never prayed in all her life, that her death wouldn’t drive them both to recklessness.
This close to the edge, Lois didn’t feel fear, only hatred. All the defiant words she couldn’t speak were expressed by the fury of her stare. She would not grovel before Luthor, not even as the barrel of her own gun filled her vision.
It was no easier for me to write than it was for you to read. Trust me.