Dr. Chisholm had been right: the internship was pure grunt work, mainly data entry, but Elise was floored by the facility itself, as well as the research being conducted there. Everything was top-of-line and state-of-the-art, and not just the high-tech equipment. All the chairs were ergonomically designed, each workstation was adjustable to exactly the right height and angle for each individual’s comfort, and even the coffeemakers in the break room were high-end models designed to brew a single perfect cup in seconds. Elise wanted to work in an environment like this, where no expense had been spared in creating an efficient and comfortable lab.
And then the research … if the setting whetted her appetite, the research was making her salivate. No details, of course, since she was just a prospective intern, but she caught snatches of conversation and glimpses of work in progress. New synthetic polymers based on the silk of certain spiders, which promised a strength greater than steel cable in a slender, flexible strand. A chemical compound that bound to specific receptors in the brain, which rendered the recipient immune to a large variety of mind-altering substances for several hours. And a liquid substance, the origin and composition of which Elise didn’t learn anything about, but in her brief glimpse she saw it transform from an unassuming puddle to a three-dimensional rigid structure, based on the application of sound waves, of all things.
Never before had she understood the saying about selling one’s soul for something. At that moment, she did. This was her field, this was right on the cutting edge, and she hungered to be involved in it somehow.
Luckily there was no Faustian contract to sign, just a ten-page non-disclosure agreement with many aggressive clauses and dire warnings. Elise read it thoroughly, but nothing there diminished her desire to jump on any chance of an in with this company, so she signed with a flourish and was officially an intern of Wayne Enterprises.
The call came in late on Lois’ third night at the Whites’ penthouse. She was still dodging Kal-El, who was playing along now. Last night’s phone call, well after Kristin was asleep, had been so full of double-entendre that Lois privately thought they’d invented triple- and possibly quadruple-entendre. At this rate they’d end up sexting like a couple of randy twenty-somethings.
So when her cell phone rang that late, Lois reached for it with a grin that lasted only until the realization that it wasn’t his ring tone. Instead it was Lana’s, and Lois took a deep breath. “Hey, Red.”
“Lois,” she said quietly. “Sylvia had another stroke an hour ago. It … well, it wasn’t good.”
“How bad?” Lois asked.
“She’s in a coma. They don’t think she’ll come out of it, but Richard and Theo want to wait and see. Miracles do happen, you know.” Somehow the lack of tears in her voice made it worse. That calm, sorrowful acceptance put a spike of pain in Lois’ heart.
“Lana, honey, I’m sorry.” Lois leaned her forehead into her hand. Dammit. Sylvia, why couldn’t you have gone to the doctor? Hell, why didn’t Theo make you? Why didn’t Richard or Theo or somebody nag you into it?
Lois knew the answer, though. It was the very same reason she was overdue for a doctor’s visit herself. All of the dire warnings in the world seemed ridiculous when you felt good. Not just good for your age, but good. Those things happened to other people, not you. It was easy to believe in your own immortality, because the alternative was scary as hell.
“It is what it is,” Lana said. “I just wanted you to know. And, um, when you talk to Kristin, just tell her that Grandma Sylvia is very sick and might not get better. I trust you to have that conversation with her.”
That thought was a punch in the gut. Kristin had gone to Martha’s funeral months ago, and she was old enough to understand the finality of death, but young enough to feel its unfairness keenly. “Sure, Red. Whatever you need. Besides I still owe you for all the ‘your mom isn’t a total bitch’ conversations you had with Kala.”
“Oh, Lois, you know you never do anything by halves,” Lana teased gently.
Lois chuckled. “Is that your way of telling me I am a total bitch?”
“I’d never say such a thing. Besides, you just want everyone to think you are, and I won’t give you the satisfaction of being fooled.”
A little too close to the truth there, but Lana and Kal-El had that in common: they spoke the truth no matter how hard it was. “You’re a pain, cheerleader,” Lois sighed.
“I know I’m on the right track when you call me ‘cheerleader’. Listen, Lois, if there’s any further news, I’ll call back, all right?”
“Sure. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.” With that and some farewells, they both hung up, and Lois massaged her temples wearily. If anyone up there is listening, I’ve had my fill of funerals for the next five years. Just saying.
What Lois really wanted right then was a cigarette, but she didn’t have any with her. She pulled on a robe and wandered out onto the balcony anyway, hoping the breeze would clear her head.
Metropolis sprawled around her, a sea of lights and sound. Even at this hour traffic moved regularly along the streets below, and Lois felt like the city was a heart, its driving beat pushing people along like blood through arteries. Here she was, above it all, looking down and wondering.
Lois gradually became aware that she wasn’t alone, and turned to look. Kal-El hovered in mid-air, watching her, and he smiled when she turned toward him. “Good evening, Ms. Lane.”
Yes. Here was the perfect distraction, the perfect reminder that even though time marched on relentlessly, they could grab a few moments to savor along the way. Moments that made everything else worthwhile.
She could give him the news later. Lois smirked at her husband, and replied, “Well good evening, Superman. Fancy meeting you here.” With the arch of her brow and the bright gleam in his eyes, Lois figured the witty banter wouldn’t last more than five minutes. There was an exceedingly comfy guest bedroom right behind her and Kristin slept like a brick….
“Shouldn’t he be separated from the bitch?” Luthor asked. He and Mercy were looking into the large enclosure that currently housed Project Uplift and its mother, a female German Shepherd. She had no official code name, referred to as ‘the dam’ on all paperwork, but Lex had heard some of the staff call her Lady.
“I don’t recommend it,” Mercy replied. Project Uplift, also known as Krypto, was a fast-growing puppy, currently racing around the outdoor section of the dogs’ enclosure. His white coat shone in the sun, and he periodically tried to engage his mother in a game, but she was lying in the shade and kept her eyes closed even when he tugged on her ears.
“Why not?” Lex asked.
He could almost hear Mercy switching into scientific-reporting mode. “Right now she serves as a modulator of his behavior. She is gentle and tractable, and he follows her example. If he won’t come inside, we can get him in by calling her. He’s already learned that if he doesn’t follow her promptly, we’ll separate them, and he doesn’t like that.”
“Doesn’t like it?” Lex narrowed his eyes at that phrasing. “He’s a dog.”
“When we separate them, he whines and claws at the barrier,” Mercy replied. “Which is why the door between kennel A and kennel B was replaced with reinforced steel. He never broke through the wooden barrier, but he managed to score it deeply. In any case, we need controls on him that don’t rely on physical manipulation or restraint. The day will come when we can no longer handle him safely.”
Lex scoffs. “If he’s smart enough to learn that we’ll separate him from his mother if he doesn’t follow her inside when we call him, he’s smart enough to learn that we’ll kryptonite him if he tries to attack.”
“That’s the problem. He’s too smart.” Mercy nodded toward the dog, who was looking at them with his ears pricked. His blue eyes were focused on Lex, and there seemed to be a glimmer of intelligence there beyond the mere power of suggestion. “He’s shown that he understands at least thirty words based on his reactions to what the handlers say around him. He certainly understands tone.”
Mercy half-turned away from the puppy and lowered her voice. “Lex, we don’t know how much the gene splicing boosted his intelligence. I wouldn’t put it past him to deliberately plan an attack, and when he’s fully grown he could do a lot of damage before we stopped him.”
It was the way she spoke as much as the words that convinced him. Mercy was not superstitious in the least. If she behaved as if the pup were almost as intelligent as a human, well … she’d seen more of the data than Lex had, and she’d observed Project Uplift more often, too. “All right. I’ll leave you in charge of developing those protocols, then.”
“I already have some ideas—” Mercy began, and then her phone beeped a single loud tone. That was the emergency security alert, and she answered it immediately with the speakerphone function. “What is it?”
“Ma’am, Project Scion is out of his designated zone,” said one of the guards.
She and Lex shared a look of mingled surprise and unease. So far Scion had been extremely docile, and showed no signs of the powers he should have had. But the possibility was there, and they both knew it. “Where is he?” Mercy asked.
“Unknown, ma’am. He was discovered missing at mealtime.”
“Scan for him, then. Do not engage. I’ll handle this myself,” Mercy said. She broke into a trot, heading for the wing where Scion was housed. Lex kept pace with her. Scion responded well to both of them, and he was curious to see what this particular project was up to.
Later on, footage from the security cameras would reconstruct the sequence of events. Project Scion had walked calmly up one of the corridors, stopping at a door marked ‘Laboratory 3’. He reached up for the door handle, but it was locked. At that same moment, a guard turned the corner and saw him. “Beat it, kid,” the man said. Not every guard on the premises was familiar with every project, and this one probably mistook Scion for an employee’s child—a practice Lex frowned on, but in this remote location there were a couple of children who could not yet be separated from their parents, and some talent was worth making sacrifices.
Project Scion turned toward him for a moment, then ignored him, trying the door again. The guard approached. “Didn’t you hear me? That’s off limits. Now scram.” When Scion didn’t react, the man grabbed his shoulder and turned him roughly around. “I said get lost, kid.”
That was the moment when Lex and Mercy both turned the corner. Scion looked at the man’s hand on his shoulder, then up at him, tilting his head in a manner more puzzled than threatened. Before Mercy could call a warning, before the guard saw his immediate supervisor and his ultimate boss arriving, the guard shoved the boy. “What’s the matter with you? Move it!”
Scion took a staggering step back, caught himself, and then reached out. He grabbed the guard’s belt at the buckle in one hand, and with a casual movement flung the man ten feet down the hallway.
Lex stopped where he was. Part-human, part-Kryptonian, created with Kryptonian cloning technology and grown in a birthing matrix, Scion was unlike anything else walking the planet, a complete cipher in some ways. One that had just demonstrated super-strength. How long had he had it? Was it brought on by a sense of threat, perhaps triggered by a spike in the boy’s adrenaline? And what other powers were brewing in the exotic mix of Scion’s DNA?
While Lex hesitated, Mercy approached, asking, “Are you hurt?” Not the guard, though. The boy, and she spoke in Kryptonese.
He turned toward them then, his gaze puzzled. Scion’s black hair fell into a familiar curly forelock, but he was still too young to tell which of his forebears his features would resemble. “I am not,” he replied to Mercy. His voice was level and calm; he rarely showed any temper, despite his youth. “Why did that man push me?”
“Because there are chemicals in that room which can be harmful,” Lex supplied, moving forward. “It is his duty to prevent entrance by those who are not experienced in working with such chemicals. However, he was overzealous in that duty.”
Mercy turned toward the stunned guard, who had gotten up carefully. Switching to English, she said, “That was unnecessary. Report to your shift lead for a replacement; you’re on suspension without pay for three days.”
Lex was watching Scion, and thought he saw a glimmer of comprehension on the boy’s face. He shouldn’t have been able to understand English, but as with the dog, it wouldn’t do to underestimate him. Scion had been brought up speaking strictly Kryptonese, mostly through the teaching crystals Lex had copied from Superman’s Fortress so long ago. His version of the Jor-El AI was incomplete, not really a true AI as much as a series of recordings—about as intelligent as a voice-activated telephone system, really. But it sufficed to give the boy the proper accent, and that was all Lex needed. Well, nearly all.
There were a couple of sounds in the Kryptonian language that humans found difficult to reproduce, and as Lex had learned several years ago in Nevada, a non-native speaker of the language could not access the most crucial information in the crystals without extensive preparation. Only a blood-relative of the El family, and one who spoke Kryptonese as fluently as a native—what would take decades of study for anyone brought up speaking a human tongue—could unlock the data on the deadliest and most subtle weapons of twenty-eight galaxies.
Luthor thirsted for that knowledge as he had few other things in life. What he’d learned so far had increased his fortunes and given him dozens of avenues of research to pursue, any one of which could have put him in his rightful place in the world. But the fact that some knowledge was still hidden burned in his mind, like an itch he couldn’t scratch. Maddening.And Scion would get all of that secret wisdom for him. Lex came out of his reverie as Mercy was telling the boy that if he was bored, she would show him around the areas of the facility that were safe. At Scion’s assent, Lex fell in with them both, favoring the boy with a rare smile. Luthor was his maker, not his father, but he couldn’t help feeling a touch of almost-paternal pride now and then.