“The employee stock purchase took another three percent.” Jimmy pushed the latest report across the table to Ron, all of them holed up in Perry's office. As always in a crisis, the EIC was the ground-central war-room.
Laurel turned back to the three men after snapping her phone closed on her conversation with Kay, making her way back to her seat. It was impossible to remember another time she'd been this keyed-up. “All right, that's in place. We’re tapped out, but as of right now Lana’s a majority shareholder. My girlfriend is having kittens, but it's done.”
“Well, it's not like Lana didn't approve it. I'll send her a case of antacid when this is over," the old man said with a harrumph, rolling his eyes. Then he was all work again, frowning as he pursued the latest figures. "All told, that brings us to…” Before he could finished the comment, his phone rang for what seemed like the millionth time that day. “Goddammit. Laurel, tell ‘em we’re busy.”
Lois' assistant threaded her way through the crowded office to pick up the phone. “Perry White’s office… Hello, Lana! What news?” She paused for a long moment, frowning. “Sure, he's right here; I’ll put him on. Perry, she wants to speak to you.”
“Probably gonna tell me to move Fashion up to the front page, now that she’s officially a majority shareholder,” Perry groused as he went to the phone. Ron and Jimmy waited, watching their boss. They’d heard enough of his bluster over the years to know when he was actually complaining, and when he was bluffing because something really worried him.
The two men watched Perry as he listened. After a moment he pressed one hand against the edge of the desk and leaned heavily on it. In that moment, the lines of his face seemed as deeply graven as the ones on the stylized ram’s head sculpture on the side of the building outside his window.
Laurel came to stand by Ron and Jimmy, and the three exchanged worried glances. After an interminable silence, Perry finally said sternly, “Of course I’m all right. When Lois wakes up, tell her I said she’s only got two weeks of sick leave and she’d better get her tail back to this office as soon as she can.”
Shortly after that, he hung up the phone and strode back to his chair, his spine ram-rod straight. It didn't take a genius to know that Perry was trying to digest coming a little too big for him. It only took a glance at his face if you knew him. “Chief, what happened to Lois?” Jimmy asked, jumping in with the question all of them were thinking.
Perry's answer was slow in coming, and even then, he was trying for his usual gruff tone and not quite making it. “She got into a shootout with Luthor and caught a bullet or two.”
No one had seen that coming, despite the danger they had all known that Kala's rescuers were walking into. And Lois had been the least one that they would have suspected. The younger three exchanged stunned looks. It was Laurel who finally asked, “Mr. White, is she going to be all right?”
That seemed to rouse Perry again, and this time he sounded like his old self. “Lois? Hell, you all know her. She’s the toughest person I ever hired. It’ll take more than a couple wingshots to keep her down. If we’re lucky she plugged that sonofabitch Luthor before he shot her. No, you mark my words, Lois will be fine.”
None of them needed him to say she has to be. They all heard it in his voice. But before anyone could offer a little comfort to him – Lois was his protégé, his star reporter, practically his daughter, and that news had to have struck him to the core no matter what he said – Perry snapped, “What’re we all standing around for? Olsen, aren’t you supposed to be calling the offsite employees? Troupe, weren’t you emailing that investor? Hop to it, people, let’s make sure Lane’s got a newspaper to come back to.”
This enforced holiday had its upside, Lucy thought as she and Loueen compared notes on Michelle’s and Bryan’s pre-Christmas report cards. It had been a while since this much of the family had been able to spend so much time together in one place. As long as you didn’t think really hard about the reasons for them being here, she had to admit that it was good for all of them to bond a little more. Maybe once Kala was home it would be a good idea to take a long vacation and come out here for a while. Kansas was a net exporter of peace and quiet, anyway. Even Perry couldn’t disagree that they could all use a little more of that in their lives. Especially not after this.
The two women were lamenting the unfairness of teachers being forced to teach twice their usual class load and the lack of time for one-on-one with their students when Lucy noticed movement in the hall behind Loueen. Martha stepped quietly into the room, Ben by her side, and they looked to her. A chill ran down the blonde’s spine at the expression on the older woman’s face. Oh God, now what? What next? I don’t know if I can take much more.
“Ladies … Lucy, dear … I have some bad news…” As Martha took a seat and reached for their hands, the chill became a frost over her heart. Just the foreboding made it hard to breathe. All of them had already been through so much. Struggling to force the fear away, Lucy wanted to get up and run, just go tearing out of the house and flee across the fields rather than hear what was coming.
But she didn’t. She couldn’t. This was her family and she would be strong. Her mother hadn’t raised a coward in either one of her children. They would deal with the setback and move forward. Squaring her shoulders, Lucy braced herself. She would bear whatever she had to for her family. But this was beyond what she had imagined.
Her heart dropped straight through her stomach and down through the floorboards as Martha spoke. Her big sister – inimitable, invincible Lois – had finally fallen, severely wounded by close-range gunshots. Lucy sat perfectly still, unable to move, unable to close her ears to the words. She’s alive, that’s all that matters, she told herself firmly, giving herself no time to panic. Everyone’s still alive. No one’s… I can’t even think it. They’ll all make it out in one piece. They have to. Why can’t Superman just find Kala? Why can’t they just get home?
Worst of all, Martha was continuing on to tell them that Clark and Jason were now actively helping Superman, all three physically searching the desert for Kala. Lucy had to choke back a sob; if her fiery sister had been hurt, then why were her adorable klutz of a brother-in-law and her gentle good-natured nephew out there still? Shouldn’t they be safe in the hospital with Lois? Why did Superman need their help?
Because there’s no other help for him but them, she knew. They’d seen the news, late at night, after the kids had gone to sleep. The entire Justice League of America had their hands full at the moment, a wave of chaos and crime sweeping through the country. Yet Superman was battling the spider at the center of the web, his own personal nemesis, and at the same time trying to save an old friend’s daughter.
Who am I kidding? Lucy thought with a slight sniffle, as Martha told Loueen that the protections on the family back in Metropolis had been increased. I know she loved him. He had to love her back. But Lois chose reality over the fantasy, the one time the world’s biggest closet romantic actually walked away from a fairytale for the good man who’d been waiting for her, for being a wife and a mother instead of a hero’s beloved. And I love her even more for it. She and Clark are good together.
Lucy cleared her throat and sat up straighter. Lois had to live – for Clark as well as the rest of the family. Clark and Jason had to find Kala and come back safely. No Lane girl worth her name would accept anything less from fate. So it was time to stop sniveling and start making plans for when the family was reunited.
When, not if. She wouldn’t allow anyone, not even herself, to demean the heroic effort being made by assuming that Clark and Jason wouldn’t succeed. And by the determination in Martha’s eyes, the older woman agreed wholeheartedly.
Zod was about to leave the facility, something he had never before attempted. He had several important key factors in his favor: the security staff were disgruntled by the lockdown, lax in the absence of their leader, and unaware of the extent of his powers. That should make this comparatively simple.
He allowed enough time for Mercy to be well and truly gone. The elevator opened into a natural cave on the edge of a plateau in the surrounding foothills, or so he’d overheard. Emergency supplies and an all-terrain vehicle were hidden in the same cavern, enough to get one or two people back down to the offsite storage facility on the plain. Mercy would have taken the ATV, which was rigged to disguise the tracks of its own tires, and to the simple minds of the security staff, that would leave them all stuck here, so guarding the elevator wasn’t a priority.
Using the vehicle had not been a part of his plans, but they wouldn’t think of that. He strode casually toward his goal, looking indolent while sharply cataloguing the number of guards around and their state of readiness. All looked well.
When he opened the door and stepped into the elevator shaft, only four men awaited him, and they were lounging at their ease. They leapt to their feet in confusion, hands going to their weapons. Zod looked at them scathingly. “Is this how you defend us? Little wonder that it is so necessary for me to go above and scout.”
The four looked at each other before one of them asked, “Did Mercy tell you to follow her out?”
Zod let his flat stare rest on the man for several uncomfortable seconds. “No, she did not. I have just spoken to Luthor himself. Now stand aside; I am in no mood for your trifling questions.”
They scurried out of his way like the vermin they were, and Zod boarded the elevator. Its walls were of metal bars, and the floor of heavy metal mesh, so that nothing could be concealed within it. As the device began to winch him upwards, Zod cast one last scornful look upon the guards. “Were I you, I would be more vigilant. Ms. Graves may not return this day, but we do not know when the son of Jor-El will arrive.”
Their panicked expressions told him his deception was perfect, and Zod allowed himself a slight smile. And Luthor wonders why I am contemptuous of his entire race. True, a fraction of them may display a flicker of brilliance from time to time, but most are as easily driven as those fools.
He was careful – so very careful – when he arrived at the top of the elevator. The space was dark and close, warmth radiating in from the desert heat outside. Zod let his hearing guide him at first, making absolutely certain no one was around. All he could hear was the restless soughing of the wind and the faint ticking of grains of sand against the camouflaged door.
Stepping outside and quickly closing the door, Zod found himself beneath an overhang of rock, looking out onto a plateau. Beyond were the mountains, a forbidding landscape that nonetheless appealed to him. These were much like Kryptonian mountains, austere and stern, a welcome contrast to the insectile crowding of the cities in this world and the dull tawny expanse of its croplands.
From the outside, the door was invisible, shaded by the rock overhand and painted to match the stone. Zod strolled forward, surveying this kingdom of stone, sand … and sun. He had forgotten the impact of the yellow sun in the last year of captivity, and tilted his head back to drink it in with every pore. Those lights in his quarters below were but the palest imitation, water after wine, and this, this was glory and power and life itself beating down on him…
He couldn’t resist the tempation, and never mind that his powers were as yet untested. Zod leaped … and soared upward, rising above the mountains, passing through the cloud layer, and finally breaking into the thinnest atmosphere that would still allow him to breathe. The sun’s rays were far stronger here, and he hung suspended in midair, careless of his enemies both flying and earthbound, absorbed by and absorbing the light.
For the first time in years, he felt like himself again, like General Zod, a true son of Krypton, a demigod upon this half-savage planet. But he could not savor the return of his full powers; he had information to gather.
Taking a deep breath, Zod soared upward, until the world below resembled the topographic maps he’d seen. The view was slightly distorted by the curvature of the planet’s surface, but this landscape was easy to read: mountains, deserts, and roads snaking across both.
The roads all converged to the east, in a bright tangle of reflecting glass and neon that could only be Las Vegas. Zod turned that way and soared, alert now to the possible presence of his enemies.
The giant floating head was implying that Kala had chosen to ally with Zod. Jason couldn’t hold back after a remark like that. “Kal would never. She knows who he is, she knows he tried to kill Dad, she would never in a million years…”
The AI interrupted before Kal-El could. “He is charming, charismatic, and has a gift for intuiting one’s deepest desires. Kala is susceptible to flattery. We must assume that she has been swayed…”
The boy was unwilling to give any ground. “No, you’re wrong, Grandfather. You don’t know Kala the way I do. She is far from stupid.”
Jor-El stopped him again, but his voice had none of the caustic edge Kal-El expected to hear. If anything, he sounded weary. “I do not disagree. She is, however, vain, ambitious, and somewhat narcissistic. Qualities which I see more objectively than do you, Jon-El, for she is your twin and you will suffer no insult upon her.”
The boy’s mouth dropped open, but it was a statement of fact he couldn’t argue. As little as he wanted to admit it, the AI was right. He wanted to defend Kala. Unfortunately, everything Jor-El said was at least a little true. Even Jason had to admit that anyone who listed ‘rock star’ under ‘future plans’ on school forms was a bit hung up on herself. Kal-El saw the struggle in his son’s eyes and put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “All of us have our flaws, son,” he murmured, noting the scowl of displeasure on Jason’s face.
Still sounding aggrieved, Jor-El continued, “It is particularly unfortunate that Kala shares those same traits with Dru-Zod. He will find her particularly malleable. Already he will seem preferable to Luthor due to her personal experience with the latter. All he needs do to secure her cooperation is to convince her that they are both striving against Luthor, and remind her of their shared Kryptonian heritage. She thirsts for validation of her image of herself as the Last Daughter of Krypton.”
Now that just tore it. Jason shook off his father’s hand, bristling. Unconsciously he switched to Kryptonese to make his argument. “And if Kala is so vulnerable, then it is your fault, Jor-El. You have always criticized her sharply when she fails to meet your standards, and when she succeeds your praise is never more than faint. If she desires so deeply to have her place in this family acknowledged, you have created that need by implicitly withholding the acknowledgment she craves.”
The vehemence in Jason’s voice had Kal-El staring at his son with astonishment. The past few days had brought out a much steelier side of his quiet, gentle boy, a depth of determination previously unsuspected. He reminded himself that, superficial resemblances aside, Jason was as much Lois’ son as his own, and the defiant glare in his eyes now certainly came from his mother just as his more usual conciliatory demeanor came from Kal-El himself.
Jor-El had paused, ostensibly considering his grandson’s outburst before speaking again. “Do you believe, son of my son, that I had no sound reason for treating with your sister as I have?”
Jason gave no ground, in expression or tone. “I believe that you dismiss her because she is female – because you are more concerned with training the son of your son to take upon himself your grand mission than you are with teaching your granddaughter, who is the better scholar. I think you see too much of our human mother in Kala, and disparage her for that as you have always scorned our mother.”
The hologram stared down at him in clear surprise before answering. “You are quite incorrect, Jon-El. While it is true that Kala applies herself to her studies more stringently than you do, I have not withheld training from her for those reasons you named. She is not ready. Until she understands that the mission is more a yoke than a pedestal, she should not proceed further. You have always understood the difference. You accept your place in this world with humility instead of pride, and undertake your studies as a duty, not an escape. She cannot yet do so.”
That put an interesting spin on things. Kal-El had tried to intercede on Kala’s behalf in the past, but had never been able to convince the AI to step up her training to Jason’s pace. Nor had he ever gotten an explanation. Apparently only the direst straits could make Jor-El speak this bluntly. “Father, I wish you had shared your reasoning with me prior to this crisis.”
“My son, you yourself are nearly as guilty as your son of seeing Kala as you wish her to be. You are too willing to excuse her flaws, seeing in her the same defiant spirit you love in her mother. Yet you have told me that Lois Lane struggled against adversity in her youth; it is that striving that wears selfish stubbornness down to honorable determination. And wishing to show her the adoration Lois never received from her own father, you do not give Kala anything against which to strive.”
That silenced Kal-El. Even Lois had accused him of spoiling her, in the same fight where he’d told her she was too hard on Kala. But it was true that many of the things he loved about Lois – her spirit, her courage, her determination, her patent inability to ever give up once she was dedicated to a person or a cause – came from fighting with her father for so many years. He’d tried to spare Kala the negative aspects of such an upbringing that he wished Lois didn’t have to suffer – the insecurity, the inability to ask for help, the manic drive for success at any cost, even her own health. Had he been helping Kala, or hindering her? Providing a refuge from the strife with Lois, or just creating more conflict by being too permissive?
Jason must have seen the disturbed look on his face, because the boy put an arm around his shoulders and hugged him. When his father looked over at him, the look his son gave him made his position on things clear. “Don’t do it to yourself. You’re a great dad. Kala and I are lucky to have you, and we know it. But nobody’s perfect, Dad. Not even you. Not even him.” Then his glare returned to the hologram. “What matters is that we know you love us and you’re trying to do right by us, always. If Kala would stop being a drama queen for five minutes she’d realize the same goes for Mom. But I guess Jor-El’s right in that kids have to struggle against something, and Kala sort of picked Mom. Or Mom picked her. I dunno, but they have issues I think they can only work out with each other.”
Jor-El seemed to take that, choosing not pursue that avenue of discussion beyond a final statement of, “I have little understanding of the intricacies of the relationship between mother and daughter.” That said, he switched back to their original topic without further deviation, “What I do know, of Dru-Zod and his plans, I must impart to you before you confront him.”
Kal-El nodded then, forcing away any doubts and worries he had about anything else. Nothing mattered at this point beyond getting his daughter back amongst them and his family together once again. There was no more time to waste. “Then please speak, Father. Tell us what we face.”
Zod was keenly conscious of time. It had taken too much time to locate this hospital; unconsciously, he had sought for the serenity of Kryptonian halls of healing. Eventually he’d discovered the bustling hive of barely-ordered chaos that was the city’s trauma center.
There, at last, he was lucky. The wing of the building he scanned (from more than a mile above it) contained the woman he searched for. He would never forget that face, considering she’d been a part of his defeat. Once he’d located Lois Lane, Zod listened to the conversations around her.
The voices were guarded, speaking of physical therapy, long recovery, and potential side effects. That gave him what he needed to know; she would likely live, but would not recover her full health for a long time. Very well, then. There were many accidents that could befall an ailing woman.
With that, he turned from the city and soared again, a mere speck in the sky to any eyes but a Kryptonian’s. Surely he had time enough to keep watch for his foe, and to soak up just a little more sun, before returning to the compound.
With Mercy’s sharp words stinging his pride, Luthor decided it was long past time to bring the General back into line. If that arrogant alien wanted to make threats, then he’d get what was coming to him. Luthor walked quickly and quietly down to the lab, where he soon found a large enough piece of kryptonite to serve his needs. He’d been stockpiling the stuff for years, multiplying his horde with the crystal replication technology.
The piece he chose was almost as long as his forearm, but narrow, a single perfect crystal. It practically radiated menace as Luthor slipped it up his coat sleeve. Let Zod try to shrug this off.
He trotted cheerfully down to the security monitoring station, finding it empty except for one man. It was enough to give him pause. That wasn’t good; there were supposed to be at least three here at all times, watching the various goings-on at the facility. After the sole remaining watcher summoned his assigned fellows for a scathing dressing-down, Luthor insisted that they track down the General.
To his outrage, they didn’t need to look through the video feeds. Zod had left half an hour ago! Luthor sent men to canvas the area, but Zod was gone. He’d left no tracks in the shifting sand, and they couldn’t see him even with the infrared scopes. He was just gone.
Luthor ground his teeth, his fury leashed with no target and rising to a savage scalding boil. As his anger seethed against itself, seeking an outlet, he flashed back to everything that had contributed to his rage. Failing to subdue Lois, being chased by the boy, the father and the son escaping his trap, and getting scolded by Zod, infuriating supercilious sanctimonious Zod, who dared to tell him what to do…
And all of a sudden he had his wrath under control again, icy calm as the perfect vengeance presented itself. You shall not touch her, Zod had proclaimed. What better way to teach the General his place than to deliver his punishment to the girl. She was very nearly superfluous now; if she died of kryptonite radiation, well, that was the fate of the weak: to die at the hands of the strong.
Smiling, Luthor sauntered toward Kala’s room, the kryptonite still concealed in his sleeve.
All the rules,
Fate has redesigned those…