This was a meeting of the powers-that-were, or at least some of them. Barbara Gordon didn’t like face-to-face meetings very much. In the Clocktower, she had her fingers on the pulse of not just Gotham City, but the whole nation if she wanted to—hell, the world if she felt like it. She didn’t often cast her net that widely, but the fact that she could at need was reassuring. Meeting in a public restaurant, she was still connected via phone and tablet and JLA communicator, but it wasn’t the same. Those were just the narrowest tributaries of the mighty river of data Babs was used to navigating.
But this meeting had been requested to be in person, and Babs had no intention of denying Lois Lane. That she was Superman’s wife had nothing to do with it. Lois was the assistant editor of the Daily Planet, and according to Babs’ sources she would likely take over as Editor-in-Chief when Perry White retired. She had proven herself trustworthy a hundred times over, even to the point of deliberately interfering with stories and obfuscating the truth. It had to go against every fiber of her being to withhold stories as huge as the secret identities of the JLA … but Lois understood the need for it. None of them could operate effectively if they went public. Their friends and families would constantly be in danger. Lois had experienced that herself, and with only one person knowing the family secret. If the whole world knew … that was a nightmare she’d fight to prevent.
The restaurant was Babs’ choice, one where she knew the layout and was certain the private rooms in the back were actually private. She’d been there often enough that their table was already set up, one chair removed to allow convenient access for the wheelchair. She wheeled neatly into place and a waiter arrived at her elbow within seconds. Just a glass of water, for now.
Lois was two minutes early, and ordered a glass of wine before she ever sat down. The reporter was crackling with vitality, and Babs was wary. Lois was well known for being happiest while wreaking havoc. “So where is this rock hound?” she asked, as soon as Lois was seated.
The reporter grinned, glancing at her menu. “All business, as usual. You could at least tell me if the chicken marsala’s any good.”
“It’s passable. The shrimp scampi is better. You were the one who insisted on meeting in person, Lois.”
“I did,” she replied, and put the menu aside. “You had to’ve heard about the museum robbery in Portland.”
The salient facts came quickly to mind. “I did. I have the investigation reports and a tracer in the Police Bureau mainframe for any new info on the case. I also interviewed the junior curator. There was no reason to think it was the sort of rock we’re concerned about. What’s your analysis?”
Lois smirked. Babs couldn’t help the irritation that rose up in her chest. She had completely reinvented herself as the information broker to the entire JLA, made the amassing and analysis of knowledge her specialty, and here was a snarky reporter grinning at the prospect of showing her up. She smothered her temper and arched a brow patiently … even when the waiter turned up and took their order, further interrupting them.
Only once he was gone did Lois lean forward. “I spoke with the senior curator. And I amped up the schmooze. Which is how I learned that this particular sample is definitely a meteorite, and that it fluoresces under UV light.”
Babs sat up straighter, her eyes widening. That was a known property of kryptonite, but also certain other stones. “Did he also check…” she began.
Lois read her intention and answered before she finished the question. “The museum has a Geiger counter in the basement. The old guy was willing to take it out for me. Not unhealthy levels of radiation, but the area around the display case was definitely higher than background levels.” The triumphant look in those hazel eyes was almost worth being shown up.
Babs’ mind ran along chains of logic and deduction. One major stumbling block occurred. “This sample isn’t like the others.”
Nodding, Lois agreed. “I know. It’s blue. But that could be due to some impurity in the stone. Or maybe it actually does come in more colors than we know of. It’s not as if we know everything about the stuff, even now. The question is, who took it?”
“No,” Babs said calmly. This was her realm, and a tiny part of her soul rejoiced to see Lois taken aback. She stamped down on that impulse, hard. It was unworthy of her, and unworthy of Lois, too. “The real question is how did anyone find out what it was? Once we know that, we can narrow the list of who might’ve stolen it.”
“How many people know the specific properties of that rock?” Lois asked, half-rhetorical. “And this is a site far from the other known meteorites. No one’s going through every geological museum on Earth with a Geiger counter and a black light.”
Babs pulled her tablet from her bag. Woefully slow compared to the mainframe at home, but it would do for now. A moment’s searching based on a hunch gave her an answer. “NASA just unclassified some documents this year, relating to the meteor shower that brought us all known samples of that rock. Anyone with a motive and sufficient computing power could compose a list of potential meteorite strike locations, and then cross-reference it against museum collections. More and more of those are being listed online these days … and the Portland museum just started an online catalog of exhibits two months ago.”
“You think it’s Luthor?” Lois asked, lowering her voice.
“He likes having the market cornered,” Babs commented. “But we should also consider profit as a potential motive. You’re aware that the price of this stone is higher per volume than any other commodity on the planet?”
Narrowing her eyes, Lois just nodded. “Much as it annoys the shit outta me, yeah. I know.”
“We need to know who Luthor’s been competing with,” Babs said. “It’d be advantageous for them to undercut him. And we need to explore other possibilities, too. Unfortunately the data is public; it’s just a matter of who knows the specific properties of the stone.” She already had ideas in that direction. False trails leading to potential meteorites would draw in the same thieves, and she could have some of her people lying in wait. They’d get multiple suspects, but….
Lois cut her off again. “I was thinking … a few years back, he slipped a piece of software into my office computer that tracked everything I did and reported back to him. Could you use that to sort of reverse-track your way into his computers?”
Babs blinked. That was a lucky stroke indeed. “I can certainly try. But you erased the bug, right?”
Again with the grin; Babs was starting to see why Clark loved her so much. There was a ferocity to her that came through loud and clear when Lois was on the hunt. “Not before isolating it and copying it to a jump drive that’s never been used for anything else. I can get it to you—but you have to keep me in the loop. I’ve seen what happens when people try to keep well-intentioned secrets, Barbara, and the outcomes suck. So promise you’ll keep me informed, all right?”
“Done,” Babs said. She outlined her plan to bait the thieves, and got enthusiastic approval. The welcome side-effect of that plan was entrapping people who knew about kryptonite. Even the ones who weren’t suspects in this theft would be targeted and tracked. Anyone who knew Superman’s weakness so intimately was a threat.
“Who all has it, do you know?” Lois said. “I know Luthor’s been selling it like he’s having a goddamn yard sale, but do we know who the major buyers are?”
“Black Mask bought a substantial supply last year, but Red Hood stole it. That stash is off the grid; Hood hasn’t tried to sell it, or use it, so far. My assessment is that he has it for insurance purposes.”
“Insurance?” Lois asked, her voice going cold.
“Just in case a certain someone decides to turn up in Gotham and solve all of Batman’s problems for him,” Babs said with another arch look. Their meals arrived, and they fell to plotting between bites.
Dustin muttered and grumbled and armed sweat off his forehead. Why the heck had he agreed to change the oil on this little sub-compact import in the first place? The damn things were engineered with such tight spaces he practically had to take the thing apart to get at anything. Even the oil filter—which should be easy, you had to change the oil more often than anything else—seemed to require an extra joint in his arm to reach. At the moment he was lying flat on his back underneath the car, with his right arm snaked up inside the engine compartment. That way he could get two fingertips and a thumb on the blasted oil filter, and maybe get enough torque to turn the stupid thing, since his oil filter wrench wouldn’t fit either….
Dustin’s phone rang, and while he normally considered it an interruption, right then it was a welcome one. Especially since the song it was playing wasn’t one he recognized, which meant Kala had probably gotten hold of it and programmed a ring tone of her choosing, which meant that was Kala calling him.
He slid out from under the car, wiping his hands on the rag hanging from his pocket as he walked over to the toolbox where he’d left his phone. “Hey, Kala,” he answered, already smiling.
“Hey, yourself,” she said, and just the sound of her voice made everything okay again. “How’s your mom?”
“Fine, fine. Starting to get sick of me and Dad worrying about her. She pitched a fit last night at dinner when Dad kept jumping up to refill her glass. Told us to stop treating her like a cripple.” Dustin grinned at the memory of his mother, both hands on her hips glaring at them.
Kala chuckled. “Sounds like she’s back to her old self. What’d you do?”
He laughed. “Asked her if I could borrow ten bucks for lunch. She threw a napkin at me, so everything’s pretty much back to normal. What about you? What’s new in the rock-star life?”
“Well…” She trailed off, and Dustin knew there was something she wanted to talk about. When they were kids, Kala would literally hop up and down in place when she had something she wanted to say but for some reason couldn’t. He could picture those days perfectly.
He also knew why she was being hesitant. Kala did actually like his mother, even if Mom was a bit overwhelmed by her. Inviting the Kent girl home for dinner was sometimes a bit like opening the door to a benevolent tornado. “Look, Kala. Mom’s fine. We got the results back yesterday—it’s just a benign cyst. She’s gonna be okay. So tell me whatever’s on your mind before you explode.”
Her laugh was silvery and wonderful. “You know me too well. Anyway, we got signed!”
“Holy shit!” The exclamation wasn’t an ordinary one for him, but this wasn’t ordinary news. “You really did? Hot damn!”
Kala actually giggled, as astounded as he was. “We have a record deal, two albums, two tours, plenty of studio time. I mean, there’s never any guarantees in this business, but we got signed! KLK is on its way, baby!”
“I’m so happy for you,” Dustin said fervently. And he meant it, too, even if this was another reason why they wouldn’t be getting back together. Her career was taking off, with all that meant, and he’d found his place here in Smallville again. But Kala had wanted this as long as he’d known her, and even if he’d miss her, he couldn’t help being delighted. Heck, he was even getting a bit choked up about it. “You’re gonna go places, babe. I know it. God, Kala, I wish I could hug you right now so much.”
Dustin had to swallow hard around the lump in his throat, and he missed what she said—Kala spoke so softly it was almost to herself. “What was that?” he asked.
“I said I wished you could, too,” Kala said, and now her voice was full of longing. He got the feeling she’d changed her wording a bit, but didn’t push it. She continued, “I miss you so much.”
“I miss you too.” Any time Kala was around, she expanded the possibilities to the horizons. What she’d given him was a gift beyond price: the knowledge that the whole world lay at his feet, that he could do anything he wanted to.
The fact was, what Dustin wanted to do was take over the business that had been in his family for three generations, marry a girl he loved, and raise children in the town that he could navigate blindfolded. He wanted to live where he knew everyone and they all knew him. He wanted a job that made a material difference in people’s lives; fixing cars might seem like a small thing, but it wasn’t to people who relied on their vehicles to get them to work every day. Just because his dreams weren’t big didn’t mean they weren’t good dreams.
Dustin wanted all of those things, but if he hadn’t run away and joined up with Kala on her last tour and lived with her in Metropolis, he wouldn’t appreciate them the way he did. Little towns all over the place were full of bitter, resentful people who wished they’d gone away to the city, people who felt like they’d wasted their lives. Dustin would never be one of them. He had Kala to thank for that.
“You know, there’s a stop in Kansas City,” she finally said, almost shyly.
“You’d better send me tickets, then,” was his instantaneous reply.
“Front row,” Kala shot back. “But if you wear that cowboy hat I’ll stop the whole show to take it away.”
“Oh, now I’m definitely dressing like a cowboy. Boots and everything. I think I can find a bolo tie somewhere.”
“People will think you got lost and went to the wrong concert.” She was snickering, trying not to burst out laughing.
“I’ll bring a great big sign that says ‘I Love KLK’ just so no one’s confused.”
“I love you, too.”
A beat of silence followed her reply, the unconscious answer bringing back bittersweet memories for both of them. Kala hurriedly added, “Oh, and you should probably check my Facebook photos to make sure you recognize me.”
Dustin chuckled softly. “I’ve seen you in stage makeup before, Kala. As long as you smile, I’ll recognize you.”
“Yeah, well, it might change by then, but the label loves what I did with my hair and they want me to keep it like that. So be prepared for blue hair.”
“Blue?!” he yelped.
He gasped, sitting up, his chest aching, aching. Breath wouldn’t come, and he raised his hand to his throat reflexively.
Then he saw the hand, and gave a little whimper of horror. Metal, his right hand was mostly metal now, smooth dull grey with wires running back into the flesh of his forearm. He tried to flex his hand, and the … prosthetic? … obeyed. Those wires moved when he did it, and another ache started up in his forearm. And, bizarrely, in the hand.
Not wanting to see it anymore, he clasped it to his chest, and felt strange lumps under the shirt. Frantic now, he tore the shirt to get it off, and groaned. More metal in his chest, and a glowing green light shone out of it.
Nightmare, it had to be a nightmare, and he used the still-human fingers of his left hand to grab a healthy chunk of skin on his right bicep and pinch. Hard. Hard enough that he winced.
But didn’t wake up. He looked at his hands, one callused and freckled, the other a machine. This couldn’t be real, it couldn’t be….
“Ah, you’re awake,” a man’s voice said. He whipped around, and heard a whine of servos in his goddamn neck. The man wore a lab coat and looked at him with a whimsical smile. “I see the hand works properly.”
“What’ve you done to me?” He meant to bellow the question, but it came out as a feeble croak.
“Why, I saved your life,” the scientist said. For all that, he didn’t approach any closer. “Can you tell me your name?”
His mouth opened … but that simple request stumped him. His name, his name, he heard it a dozen times a day, signed it even more, saw it on his driver’s license and his mailbox. He could see the mailbox in his mind’s eye, but not the name. That time he managed to shout. “You bastard, what’ve you done to my mind?!”
The scientist smiled incongruously. “Your name is Metallo now, my friend. And you have what you’ve always lacked: a purpose.”
Metallo. Appropriate, but he wanted no part of it. His hands curled into fists, the left one silent, the right creaking as its metal joints were compressed. “Oh yeah? And what purpose is that?”
“You will kill Superman,” the scientist said calmly.