By Mercury (firstname.lastname@example.org )
Summary: A sequel to the episode "Tempus, Anyone?" that addresses the problem of the alternate Lois. The alternate Clark goes back in time to 1993 in the Congo, finding his rescue plans complicated by Tempus and several other time travelers.
Standard FanFic disclaimers apply.
This story is a sequel to TA, set sometime after BDGF, primarily in the TA universe. It attempts to address the problem of the alternate Lois; i.e. there is a gravestone in the cemetery with Lois's name on it but the people at the planet are not surprised that she is alive, only that she has turned up.
The idea behind this story is that, in TF, Tempus told Lois that she and Clark were/will be the foundations of a peaceful future; If there had been no Superman, the future might have been far worse… The problem is that Lois and Tempus have altered that future. Not everyone thinks this is a good thing.
[My contrivance to keep Perry working at the Planet is a little thin; anyone else got a better idea?]
Comments are welcome and should be sent to : email@example.com
Underscores denote emphasis.
Part 1 1996, Alternate
The two men looked up from their work, startled, to glance at a third. All were dressed in black, well tailored clothes, and wearing distinctive torcs.
One of the men turned around. "What was that, Flix?"
The man who'd called out waved backwards towards a large, high-tech piece of equipment. "We've got problems, Chisjor. Big problems."
Chisjor turned back to the other man and raised his eyebrows in query, and received a shrug in reply.
"We've got plenty of time yet, Flix, calm down; We'll be ready."
Flix shouted angrily at the last man. "Shut up, Jilse, and get over here, both of you."
The two men joined the third, gathering around the machine's main console.
"It doesn't make sense."
"I know, Jilse, that's what I said — we're in trouble." Flix looked exasperated.
"These readings are showing some sort of major disturbance in the timeline. The effect rippling back from our time. It looks like… well it's as though the future has just disappeared."
"No. _Our_ future has disappeared. There's a time dichotomy about thirty years from now. The resolution front will manifest in about two days. I don't think our line won. In two days, unless we can fix it, we will never have existed."
"Can't we jump ahead? If we miss the eventuality, we'll be safe."
"Not this time, it seems to effect us personally; We can move forward about thirty years, decreasing at about six months per subjective hour, plus latent time effects if we t- jump. We can t-jump back," he checked some readings, "about two hundred years. At two hundred we'd have about…" Flix checked again. "Three minutes before resolution." We try and go forward more than thirty years or back more than two Cs, we won't get there."
Jilse looked at the other two. "Then we've got to find out what happened, when, and stop it." He pulled out a strange weapon, checking the power-read out. "Don't know about you two but I'm going to fry anything that threatens _my_ future."
Clark sat up, his heart pounding.
The dream faded, though the dread did not. He looked around, the darkness hiding nothing. There was no threat; The apartment was empty. The streets quiet even to his hearing.
He lay back, mind whirling, refusing to relinquish her memory. He'd had the same dream most nights for the past three weeks; he knew that the way things had worked out was inevitable, but that did not ease the ache in his heart, or bring her any closer to him.
Unable to sleep, the air was his only escape, taking solace in being able to help others. But as much as bringing succour to the needy gave his life purpose, that life was still empty.
Lana had not returned his calls which was understandable, but painful; that option was closed to him.
Work at The Planet was no longer the way it had been. How can you investigate corruption in the city when you are recognised more often than the focus of your story? His friends acted the same, but they could not hide everything, their eyes saying "you're different, not like us". How often had the laughter ceased when he made an appearance, no one wanting to appear trivial before Superman.
This route was for the best, he knew, life had been so fearful in hiding, and his sole would always bear the burden of knowing that there were thousands who had less than even him due to his lack of courage — how many lives had he saved in the past three weeks? How many had been lost in the past ten years?
Sitting atop the Lexcorp building in Metropolis, impervious to the bitter cold, Clark wondered how often _he_ had done the same. It couldn't have been often; there would be no reason to savour your sorrow if there was someone to love.
"Perry? What happened to Lois?"
Perry looked up, perplexed, at the man in front of him. Superman was dressed strangely. A dark suit, white shirt; A figure from the past.
"What's the matter, Sup… Clark? You look lost."
"I can't stop thinking about her. Lois that is. What happened to her?"
"She returned to the alternate universe didn't she; That's what you told me anyway. Not sure I believe half of it, but then, I'm not sure I believe in _you_." There was a quick laugh.
Clark couldn't help but grin; Perry at least, had remained pretty much unchanged.
"No. _Our_ Lois. You were shocked at her re- appearance, but… I don't know, it's as though you always knew she was going to return."
"Well, you know Clark, that is… was, Lois; You couldn't stop her from anything, but she'd always be back with the scoop. She had enough life for two people…" Perry's face fell, momentarily, to be replaced by a false grin. "Still waiting for her to burst in here with an exclusive and force me to change tomorrow's lead at the last moment, again." Perry drifted off into thought, returning with a shake of his head. He looked at Clark. "You're serious about this aren't you?" He didn't wait for a reply. "Three years ago. Nearly four now, she stumbled across some story about gun runners operating out of the Congo; pretty unusual — who runs guns out of the Congo? Anyway I couldn't stop her from going, didn't even want to, but I managed to get her to take someone along — Morris was his name, good man. They'd always seemed to get along together, and I knew she would be reluctant to work with anyone, never mind a stranger." Perry shook his head sadly. "Came back in a box. What they could find of him anyway. No messages, notes, nothing. No sound from Lois either. It was like she'd vanished from the face of the planet. I sent five, six people there over the next couple of months; No one could find anything. The police in the area were no help, saying foreigners should stay out of things that didn't concern them and that no-one would ever see Lois Lane again. They were right too, if you don't count…" Perry bowed his head. "Still gets to me, even after all these years. She was a vital woman, I still can't believe she vanished. She could talk God into giving her an exclusive and would persuade the devil himself that black was white if it suited her."
"I can believe that. But, if you couldn't find any sign of her, why does she have a plot in the cemetery?"
"What are you talking about, Clark? Lois with the worms? I told you, we heard nothing; The Lanes wouldn't get together for Judgment day, never mind sticking a marker in the ground with no body, and it wasn't The Planet. Lois doesn't have a grave; She's not even legally dead yet."
Perry turned to hide a tear from his friend. "Still paying her salary. When she returns I'll not have her penniless."
The Congo might be hours away for Lex Airlines, but it was a matter of minutes for Superman.
Perry had told him where Lois had gone, close enough anyway; There had been no body in the grave with Lois's name, though he'd trembled like a leaf as his vision bored through the earth; his relief had left him shaking for what seemed like hours. Perry had said he'd try and find out who'd raised the stone, but in the meantime, Superman had a mission.
The dense jungle overgrowth would have presented problems for the normal explorer, but not for someone who could fly over the treetops, looking down with penetrating super vision; any area could be covered in moments. His first scan of the area showed some signs of previous inhabitation, long since ravaged by the voracious jungle. The nearest city of any size was over 30 miles away — there did not seem to be much use in inquiring there. Closer there were several small towns and villages, inhabited mostly by poor farmers, hacking a living out of the unforgiving jungle. No one that superman was able to find could give any insight into what had happened in the past. That there had been some sort of event was unquestioned; the people told stories of many foreigners going missing — not all of whom were found again. Fully half of the people were convinced that the events of three years ago was the work of devils and that any questioning of them was sure to bring destruction. He checked out the area where the events were supposed to have occurred, but other than some strange coloration's in the soil, and an uncomfortable resonance from the flora, he could find nothing. Whatever events had taken place were not going to be uncovered by questioning current inhabitants or by searching the uncommunicative ground.
"Clark, what did you expect? It's been nearly four years after all, and no one I sent was able to find out anything after four weeks; the best report I got back said that the whole caboodle had been shipped off into outer space, and everyone there was now imprisoned with Lincoln and Hubbard. Couldn't print it though; the man, Stepman, got to say all this disappeared as well. It would have been fun for the Planet to print a UFO story, but I wouldn't do so without corroboration."
"I don't know, Perry. I would have thought that someone would have remembered something useful. All I got was talk of devils and aliens. It's just so frustrating; There should have been some trace of past events; I scanned the earth around the camp and couldn't find any traces of bodies, no signs of a fight, anything; just the strange soil and the odd plants. I could almost believe that they _did_ get kidnapped by aliens except, if they had, no doubt Lois would have been back with an exclusive." Clark's grin could not hide the pain behind it.
"Never mind, son; I should hear back from my sources soon. If we can get a lead on who planted that marker for Lois, we may get some clues we can follow up."
Perry had to wait for several hours before he could speak to Clark again; Whilst things had calmed down a lot with the arrival of Superman on the scene, there were still a lot of guns on the streets and enough people who were more than willing to use them. Tempus may have caused the problem, or at least fanned its fires; but he had not stuck around to sort things out. When Clark did make an appearance, it was as Superman. Perry could never quite figure out how to deal with the change, but with years of experience with the paper he could bluff his way past anything; It helped that he could see the change had been for the better. In the past, Clark had always seemed a little wary, on edge — _defensive_; Superman showed none of this — Superman seemed to need to help as much as Metropolis needed helping.
"Cleaned up a few more bad guys?"
"Yes, though I don't know how many more the prisons can deal with. Some of these are people I've picked up before, half the time they seem to get put straight back on the streets — no room at the penitentiary."
"We can only bring it to the public's attention, Clark; as long as you write it up they'll learn about it. Circulation has never been so good. Everybody wants to be rescued by the man of steel — they also want to read what he has to say."
"Well, I doubt that having the most popular mayor in history as editor had an adverse affect either; I still can't figure out how they let you get away with spending so much time here, on top of your duties as mayor."
Perry laughed. "Well I tell you — if they want you bad, they'll let you do anything. I told them when I started that I'd work nine to five as mayor; If they wanted more hours they'd need two elections — one for the day job and one for the night. Once they picked themselves up, they saw the light." Perry grinned from ear to ear. "I sure do love the smell of fear in the boardroom."
Superman could not help but smile.
"Well…" Perry was cut off mid sentence by the strident cry of the phone.
"What? Where? No, no, I'll send someone along right away. Hold on."
Perry looked up. "Its my source, Harry, he's in a bad way…" He glanced around. Superman had already gone, his hearing being more than capable of picking up the voice on the other end of the phone line.
"Lips" Harry, one-time thief and lifelong troublemaker was in trouble himself. Nothing had gone right from the moment Perry had asked him a simple question about a gravestone. Now it looked as though the chance to work off a favour was not going to be so easy after all. His hand reached down to his side again. The blood was not flowing so fast now, though he didn't know if that was good or bad. There was certainly enough of it pooled around. He should have been more careful — the name and address the graveyard plot was allocated to was too obvious. It could only have been genuine or a trap. A trap he'd walked into with both eyes closed. Harry was hoping that whoever Perry sent would get to him quickly. He didn't think that he was supposed to survive his "lesson", as they'd called it. Odd, though, that they hadn't relieved him of his phone when they'd taken his gun.
Superman landed behind a gust of wind, blowing dust in Harry's eyes. Blinking away the tears, Harry looked up. Silhouetted by the mid-day sun, all he can see are a pair of blue clad legs and someone standing with arms akimbo.
"Superman! Never thought I'd say it, but am I glad to see you."
"This time my help does not come free — you've got some questions to ans…" Superman didn't get to finish his sentence. Too busy concentrating on Harry, he'd not paid attention to other sounds around him. A wave of fire rolled towards him from the barrel of a strange weapon; Superman just had time to register the danger before his reactions took over. He picked up Harry at superspeed and flew out, through the closed door, splinters of wood scattered before him. He stopped in the courtyard, carefully lowering Harry to the ground, and headed back to the building to apprehend his assailant.
Everything turned red-orange as he was engulfed in flame. The incendiary cone was not powerful enough to kill him, but it was enough to char his cape and suit, and the heat left him dazed and reeling. Before Superman could recover from the onslaught another weapon was brought to bear. A bullet, made of a material harder than steel, slammed into his chest with incredible force, spinning him round. Clark had rarely been physically hurt before and the pain was unbelievable. The vacuum left by his supersonic exit extinguished the last of the flames and made mini-whirlpools from the smoking tarmac.
Chisjor lowered his weapon and rubbed his eyes. The man he'd shot at did not reappear. He jumped down from the roof where he'd been keeping watch, blase to the thirty foot drop, and moved over to where Flix was poking the treacly black mess created by the earlier flames with a booted foot. Flix had dropped the incinerator, useless until it recharged, and had unlimbered a plasma rifle like Jilse's.
"What the hell was that?" Chisjor could not keep the wonder out of his voice, though Flix did not seem to notice the slip.
"I have no idea. I can't believe he — it — survived the I3 — I've used this thing to burn into bank vaults. Where's Jilse?"
Jilse came jogging up. "Did you get him?"
"No, damn you! Why couldn't you have waited. We needed to find out what's going on, not blast everything in sight."
"Someone comes flying in through the door, you want me to wait! It's a good job I didn't — you saw how quickly he moved; If we'd let him get close we wouldn't have stood a chance."
"Well you might be right this time; but next time, wait!"
Chisjor finished looking around and returned. "Don't know about you guys, but my money's on whatever that was being involved somehow. No way was that normal. I can handle the flying, but the speed and… and…" Chisjor was at a loss for words. "There was no mention of any such man in our briefing pack; he has to be a new addition on the scene."
Flix turned to face him. "It's not enough though. To cause a time event requires a time based paradox; for that you need a time machine. Unless that thing can time travel, and there's been no signs of any time travel for the past two weeks, he's not the only part of this story."
They returned to the warehouse where they'd lain in ambush, and prepared to leave.
"Right, Jilse — you hook up to whatever library services exist in this time and find out what that was back there. See if you can find out more about what brought that "Harry" person here in the first place as well. Chisjor, you see if you can whip up some more firepower. Look sharp people we've got about forty hours left. I'll see if I can locate the chronal point where it all started."
Clark arrived back at the Planet only minutes after he'd left.
Perry looked up to see a blackened figure standing on his carpet, uniform in tatters and what looked like a bruise, visible through one of the larger holes.
"Clark! By all the wives of Elvis, you look a mess. What happened?"
"I have no idea, Perry. I went to pick up Harry, but there was someone waiting there; They had some sort of energy weapon, and a high-powered rifle." Superman rubbed the bruise, concern written on his face. "I found Harry, but lost him again." Clark shook his head. "I don't know who they were, or what weapons they were using — I've never come across anything that could hurt me before, except that Kryptonite stuff that Tempus had — but Harry found _someone_ involved in this."
"Where is Harry?"
"He'd gone when I went back to look for him, and I'm not in any state to search the city for him at the moment. He's probably with some back-street doctor somewhere."
"So we're back to square one; nothing to go on."
"Not quite, Perry; Those weapons were not from this time — no one has anything like that."
"You don't think it's Tempus again do you? I thought he was taken back to the other universe with Lois?"
"I don't know, Perry, but I intend to find out. I left Tempus's hideout to the police — I didn't want to do anything that reminded me of Lois before — this time I have to look for myself."
It was easy for Superman to gain access to the underground hideout; The police knew a good thing when they saw one, and four weeks of Superhelp had made them see quite a lot more criminals than usual; They weren't going to stand in his way, in fact the officer in charge handed him the keys personally.
The whole place had been thoroughly searched, but the people who did the looking had relied on normal eyesight and investigative procedure, procedure hampered by a tight budget and too few staff. Deep sight soon revealed the sealed off sections under the floor. It looked as though they'd been closed permanently, for the only entrance was sealed with a huge concrete block, fixed permanently in place with quick- drying cement.
Clark was as neat as possible breaking a hole through the floor, but the concrete was thick; it was a ghost-like wraith that descended into the basement, Superman's uniform hidden by a think layer of concrete dust.
Inside was an Aladdin's cave of un-recovered gold and gems — presumably from the other timeline — computer equipment and high tech machinery. The tabletops were clean and tidy; everything in its place. Something seemed _familiar_ to Clark, though he could not place it — it was as though there was someone he knew standing behind him. There was a disturbing background hum as well, the unsettling harmonics drowning out everything else, though the sound was not loud.
In one corner was an antique writing desk, the polished wood inlaid with intricate whorls of rosewood and teak. On the desk was a notebook.
The book was a diary. The cover was worn and dog- eared, the pages travel stained and patchy in places. It seemed to start with Tempus escaping from Jail. Clark checked the dates. This had been a long time ago. The last entry was hurried, and detailed the events from the TV debate. It said nothing about future plans. Reading the diary took seconds, but revealed little; Tempus appeared to have used the diary to record events, not thoughts, and had not been keeping up very well for the few days before he fled.
Clark put down the diary and looked around the other areas of the basement. Whilst the working areas had been clean and tidy, the living quarters showed signs of a rapid departure. Drawers had been emptied and left open, items of clothing were scattered around, discarded. Obviously Tempus had thought he would be followed faster than he had been. The entrance had shown signs of being partially sealed from within. Either there was an exit further along, or…
The next room contained the answer in the form of a time machine. There was a few month's worth of dust over everything, but it was not so thick as to obscure the fact that there had been one other machine in the room; apparently standing for some time on one spot. The remaining machine was free from dust, though oddly the ground beneath wasn't. Clark glanced around, but his were the only footprints.
"You can't use the thing, Clark." Perry felt as though he'd said it a thousand times. "How do you know that Tempus hasn't booby-trapped it?"
"I don't, chief, but I have to take that chance; this appears to be the only way I am going to be able to find out what happened to Lois; I'll take any risk necessary to find her. Perhaps you don't understand that, but it's the way it is."
Perry looked Clark in the eye. "I can understand that, Clark, I once felt the same way about Alice. Do what you have to do and I'll back you up. Just be careful, OK?"
"You know me, chief, careful is my middle name."
"Up until last week, I'd have believed you; I'm not so sure anymore."
"Well I'll do my best. I don't think that Tempus had any time to do any mischief, and I've got a funny feeling that he wouldn't have done anything even if he'd had the chance. Deep down, I'm not sure that he really wants me dead."
"Well don't count on that, Clark. You're the toughest thing I know, but it doesn't mean you can't get hurt. Have you figured out how to work the time machine yet?"
"Yeah; seems pretty simple. You set the date you want to go to, standard Gregorian Calendar, put in the latitude and longitude of your destination and press the button. He'd fitted some sort of flying capability, so if you're not sure of where you're going to arrive you can hover overhead to check things out. Oh, and there's a lever too; Top labelled 1 and the bottom 2; I think I can make a fairly good guess as to what that does. It was set to 2, and Tempus is originally from the other universe."
"Hmm, I wonder if that's it, two universes? Not sure I like the idea of there being hundreds of alternate universes out there; too much room for things to go wrong."
" But think of all the things that could go right too, chief. It doesn't matter anyway — we only appear to have two choices and until I've found _our_ Lois I'm not going to look for any others."
Perry smiled. "Life's too complicated as it is, huh?"
Clark sat down in the plush leather seats. The whole thing had a peculiarly baroque feel about it, and he wondered why Tempus had designed his this way. He could understand H G Well's machine looking like this, but someone from the far future? That was unimportant though, for the moment. Clark glanced at the controls. He'd pre-set one of the memory buttons with a time ten minutes in the future, and had set the main controls to the current time, and a nearby location. The lever had been changed to "1". There was one person who knew what had happened in the Congo three years ago, and Superman was going to ask her a few questions.
1996, Original Reality
Lois threw down the documents.
She buried her head in her arms, taking a few moments rest. Bittersweet memories played across her mind, unresolved. She could almost feel Clark's presence, reaching out across the light-years, just as it had when he had left her.
A sudden gust of wind shook her from her reverie, and she turned expecting to see Clark, his arrival scattering her papers as it so often had. Breeze from the open window fluttered the curtains, the cool air a welcome addition to the warm apartment. She shook her head. Clark was beyond reach on New Krypton. Every day brought with it new hope, but Lois did not really expect to see him back for some time; once again their story seemed to be destined for tragedy. She turned back to the documents and gasped.
"Clark!" She was out of her chair and in his arms faster than she believed possible. "Clark, you've returned." She tilted her head up to kiss him, arms going behind his head to draw him to her. She was surprised at the resistance. Looking into his eyes, Lois saw both longing and concern.
"Lois, I… I think you'd better sit back down."
Lois drew back, pulling his hands with her, to gain a wider view, her eyes questioning.
"What is it, Clark? Is something wrong? I wasn't… I didn't think…" She moved back in to hug him. "…It's been too long."
Clark pushed her gently away.
"Lois, I'm not who you think I am… I mean, I am, but…"
Lois could only stare blindly for an eternal second, before she felt her legs weakening. Groping behind for her chair, Lois carefully sat down, unable to speak; understanding in her eyes.
"Lois, what is wrong? Has something happened to Clark? _Your_ Clark, I mean? Where is he?" He ruthlessly quelled the jealous surge in his breast.
"Oh, Clark." The cry was one of despair. "Why does this keep happening to us?" Lois bowed her head.
Clark felt her sorrow as though it were his, but the conflict in him left him unable to do anything but stand in mute agony. The woman he loved was hurting; how could he not bleed? But he also knew that Lois had given her heart to another.
"Lois, if I can help I will. You know that. What's happened?"
Lois sat down again, her pacing having relieved most of her tension.
"There is nothing to be done, Clark — we… Clark cannot discard his principals, and that is part of the man I love. Even if I cannot thank his people for what they have done to us, I will not regret that he is the man he is — they will never have his love the way I do." Clark could only watch as Lois wept, though he desperately wanted to comfort her.
Lois sniffed, and wiped her eyes, her pride winning over sorrow. Temporarily.
"Clark. You came here for a reason, what is it?" Lois had determination in her eyes.
It was Clark's turn to pace. "I tried to, Lois, but I could not forget you. You changed my life, and your leaving created a void without hope. I tried to let my purpose fulfill me, but… but as much as it does, my life is still empty. You have shown me what it is to _live_. Before, it was simply moving from day to day."
Lois stood, moving to hold his hand, but Clark gently pulled away, not wanting the distraction.
"When you visited my world, you came across…" Clark paused. "…signs that you had no counterpart; a gravestone etched with your name, Perry's reaction, the things Wells said. It did not occur to me at the time, but you did not show any particular distress or shock at this; I thought about my own situation and decided that were our roles reversed, I would feel as though part of me had been lost…"
"The whole thing was a shock to me, Clark, at first I thought it was _me_ lying there and that I was dead; I suppose the date on the stone should have given it away. After Herbert explained it to me, I never got a chance to consider it. I suppose… thinking about it now… I know that _I_ could never accept my own death, I must only assume that she, Lois, felt the same way." Lois shook her head. "You always see yourself as being the centre of things. It is not nice to be shown how blithely the world can continue without you."
"But that is it exactly, Lois. _I_ cannot continue without you — If I have to accept that you cannot live in my world, then I must do as I can to help myself."
"But Clark, I — _she_ is dead, you can't change that. Can you?"
"I checked the grave, Lois; there was no body there, not even a coffin. Perry knows nothing about it, and I had to rescue someone asking questions about the gravestone."
Lois looked up. She could see a story as well as Clark could.
"How about her family? It could be a cenotaph; Perry might not have been told — not if her father is anything like mine was three years ago."
"There's no church records, I checked — the plot had been reserved for many years; probably why it was chosen."
"Well, that aside, even if the grave is a false one, where has she been for three years? It was 1996 when I got to your world, the grave said 1993, and Perry thought I'd been gone for that long."
"Exactly — where were you? You remembered the story that Perry talked about — gun running in the Congo; The universes are very different, but there are a lot of similarities; there must be for there to be two Planets with me, Perry and the others working at both. This event could well be almost identical, except that you returned from one, but not the other."
"But, Clark, how will this help… of course you have a time machine, like Tempus's — but can you change time? It's been three years — one person may not be much in the scheme of things, but even so the changes that person could make… What about the effect it would have on the way things are — were?" Lois was unsure what to think; her heart wanted to save "herself", her mind knew that such thoughts could have unforeseen consequences.
"Lois, I have to believe that I can do something, what use living otherwise? Tempus certainly believed that he could change the past to affect the future; you told me yourself that he tried to kill Clark as a child. You affected me dramatically, and you were not from my universe, an effect from out of time. Besides, your story to Perry may well be true… Lois may well be in a mission somewhere with amnesia." Clark gave a rueful smile at that unlikely possibility.
"Don't talk to me about amnesia. I wish I could forget all about it." Lois looked up quickly. "I didn't say that." She gave a tentative smile at Clark's puzzlement, but did not explain. "So how can I help?"
"Tell me what happened in the Congo; I don't think I will be able to change things twice, so I want to do things properly the first time." He smiled. "So to speak." Clark resumed pacing. "If I go back in time to see what happened and then fail to change it, what would happen if I were then to try to change it again?"
"Don't, Clark, I'm getting a headache thinking about wasn't-will be and maybe-ifs." Lois shook her head. "But it's pointless anyway; nothing did happen in the Congo. Nothing dangerous anyway."
Clark had to laugh. "Lois, you wouldn't know danger if it bit you."
"Well, OK, perhaps there was some danger, but I was never in _real_ trouble."
"Nothing? How about Morris? What happened to him?"
"Morris? Who's Morris?"
"Perry said that you took someone along with you; a photographer called Morris."
"No, Clark; you know me… perhaps you don't — I wouldn't work with _anyone_ before Clark. I don't recall anyone of that name working at the Planet though. It was four years ago, but I think I'd remember."
"That ruins any chance of figuring out what happened to Lois then; In my universe Morris was killed and Lois never returned — If you were never in any real danger we can't really compare the two."
"What are you going to do?"
"If I can't find out second hand what happened, I shall just have to go back and find out myself."
Lois stared blankly at the empty spot. She could still feel his presence. Finally snapping out of it, she could only shake her head, gentle tears damp on her cheek.
"Good luck." was all she could whisper.
The phrase hung in the air like a bad omen.
Flix took the DataAssist from Jilse and fast wound to the beginning of the report.
"Busy person then, this _Superman_. He's been the headlines for three months. Before that nothing. Not many facts; none of the papers have actually come out with what he's capable of, though his achievements are significant. They don't say much about where he's from either, other than to say he used to work for The Daily Planet before suddenly revealing himself. They seem a bit sketchy about that, even The Planet, though it suggests that he's not mobile; It would seem as though his first appearance was at a debate between the current mayor and his opponent, though there appears to be a video of him rescuing some woman from a little while before that. Why did he suddenly choose to take an interest in things, Jilse? Did you get that figured out?"
"Nope, he's made very few public comments, except to say that…" Jilse had to sneer… "'…I'm here to help.' He still writes for the Planet, though not as frequently — presumably too busy out saving the world." There was a pause whilst he reviewed his own information. "Something interesting though; He first turned up at the debate with the woman from that video — then she vanishes. The whole thing was televised — I've included the file for you;" He gestured at the PDA. "That woman, a man called Tempus — he was one of the debaters — and the man with the bomb all vanished not long after. The inquiry mentions their disappearance, though it seems to have been played down — probably because one of the witnesses was the mayor. Maybe that's something to work on?"
"Damn right it is. I'll come back to this later. Now, how about weapons?"
Chisjor dropped a heavy gun on the table and smiled.
"Well, we should stand a bit more of a chance this time; I've managed to put together a few extras." He gestured towards the worksurface where he'd been gathering equipment.
"I've unshipped the stasis field projector. It's not quite up to TP standards, but theoretically it can contain a small nuclear explosion — don't see why it can't hold even this Superman. I've modified the rifles to give a higher rate of fire; they're not designed for it, so don't count on them lasting too long. I've also got a giga-laser, which will probably work, and a shock inducer, which probably won't." he grinned an evil grin. "But it's fun, so I'll take it." Serious again he continued. "Finally I've reprogrammed the recall function of your TCs; should be a lot easier to effect a physical displacement which will counter his speed somewhat. Don't know why that wasn't done long ago."
Flix picked up the laser thoughtfully.
"I remember using one of these a while back — always used to think they were stupidly overpowered." He shook his head. "Let's hope they're enough." He put the gun down and continued. "OK, I've looked into tracking the chronal point. I think I've found a couple, which is inconvenient. On the other hand, we should only need to deal with one, which means we've more choice — if we can figure which is the easiest to go for." He picked up his own computer, referring to it.
"The first one, _subjectively_, was about four months ago. Slap bang on the date of that debate we were discussing. Fairly obvious that one; whoever this Superman is, he will have a big effect on the future; more importantly he's obviously a temporally induced phenomenon — his presence caused the whole problem so he must have been introduced out of time, even if he's been around for a while. The second _subjective_, but the _first_ chronological point is about three years ago. I don't need to spell this out for you; we've got a time traveller on our hands — this happened _after_ the debate subjectively. The final one is at the boundaries of our temporal node, about 2030 — obviously the one that finally does for us since the effects will easily extend to 2300 or further; it appears to be a continual effect over a period of a couple of weeks, and is probably the least amenable to change. We wouldn't have time that close to resolution to do anything anyway, so we won't be attempting that one." Flix tossed the computer onto the table. "Jilse, did you find out anything about that woman? From the clip she was pretty striking, and in that man's arms — probably a connection there."
Jilse looked up. "Yeah, I picked up some info on her; haven't had time to review it yet, hang on." He grabbed up the DataAssist from where Flix had dropped it and tapped a few buttons, asking the computer to summarise the data.
"Hmm not as much as there should be; it looks as though there's some missing. The girl goes by the name of Lois Lane. There were a couple of stories about her after the debate; she was a reporter for the same paper as Superman but…" Jilse swore. "This isn't the first time she's disappeared; Three years ago, something, doesn't say what, happened in the Congo and she vanished."
Chisjor spoke up. "So she's probably the one we want… turns up, does what she needs to do and vanishes. Rather sloppy though; you can't leave like that too often without being noticed by someone."
"Like us you mean." Jilse smiled.
Chisjor nodded. "I don't know why the TP haven't caught up with her though, disrupting time like this they must have had plenty of warning. Unless _she's_ TP?"
"No way they would let one of theirs be this messy. I can only think that they _want_ these changes, which is not good — but why now, and why not do it themselves? There must be some other aspect we're missing."
Flix waved them down. "Enough of this — we don't have time to figure these things out. There's not enough time to track down this 'Superman', which would probably be the best solution since he's almost certainly the focus, so we're just have to take a gamble that she's the one that's causing the changes and take her out as soon as possible. I'll wager this Lois Lane character has gone back to finish whatever she started here. I don't think we know enough about the situation to take her out at or near the time of the debate; we'd probably end up doing something on TV and we can't afford that. So get out your jungle gear guys, we're going to the Congo, and we're due to arrive about four years ago."
Part 2 1993, Alternate
Lois Lane stepped off the plane onto solid ground once again. She was already sweating and wiped her brow with the back of her hand. A bag landed on the ground besides her, raising a cloud of dust.
"Watch it, Morris." She turned back to the plane, shading her eyes from the noon sun, blinding even through her sunglasses.
Charlie Morris stepped through the plane door, stooping to get through. He was burdened with several bags, and seemed to be suffering from the heat even more than Lois was.
"Sorry, Lois, didn't realise you were so close."
Lois grunted acknowledgment and turned back to view the surroundings.
"What a dump. I hope this lead doesn't turn out to be a cold trail."
"Wouldn't be the first time for me, Lois, but somehow I don't think that will be a problem — you always seem to strike lucky. If you want to call it that."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I don't know — it's just that you seem to spend most of your time dodging bullets. Not my idea of fun."
"Don't be such a wimp, Charlie. We're going to be in- and-out so fast we'll be returning on the flight we came in on; get the scoop and have a write up by Friday. I'll even let you do the typing." She turned her head back at him so he could see her "you know I'm right" smile.
"Can it, Lois." Charlie shook his head. Lois was great to look at, but the price was way too high.
They picked up the bags and headed for the nearby road. There didn't seem to be any airport terminal. The strip of dirt they'd landed on was the runway for the nearby area, but there was little call for it and there was no customs or facilities, though there was a small building that apparently served as a control tower and booking office. Somehow Charlie didn't think that much of the outgoing cargo was legal.
They had arranged for a jeep in advance. The price was outrageous, unsurprisingly. It was waiting for them when they got to the road, which was gratifying since, by some miracle, the plane was several hours early. The driver was asleep, feet propped out of the window, his hat over his face. Lois tapped her foot for a couple of seconds, and then coughed loudly. There was no response. More foot tapping ensued. Charlie sighed and shook the man's leg. He woke with a start, swiping his hat away and sitting up. He calmed a little when he saw the reporters and handed over the keys without a word, apparently recognising them from a description. Either that or he was very trusting. His responsibilities over, the man placed his hat firmly on his head and trudged off towards the horizon. From his walk, a long way to go, and plenty of time to get there.
Lois shook her head and tossed the keys to Charlie.
Charlie sighed. It was going to be a long week.
Clark had decided that it would be best to go undercover. Having Superman appear in 1993, three years before his first public outing, might cause problems, but sightings of a flying man could be assigned to the same bin as UFOs. He'd found out the date of Lois's arrival in the Congo and decided to arrive the day before. That would give him a chance to scout things out a little, without having to wait too long for Lois to show up.
When he arrived the first thing he did was to hide the time machine. He had considered leaving it somewhere in Metropolis, rather than risk the local climate, but decided that it would be best to have it nearby in case of need — however fast he could fly, it still took time to cover distance, and he knew no one in Metropolis in this time anyway.
Having arranged a hotel room and dropped off his few bags, Clark set out to find out what was happening.
Lois led the way, Charlie struggling to catch up; he'd meant to stand his ground and insist that Lois carry her share of the baggage, the caring nineties man should stick up for his rights after all, but somehow reason never seemed to work properly around Lois. All his careful thought and arguments meant nothing when Lois's unspoken assumption was that Charlie would carry everything. He could not even think of how to complain about this — Lois had a way about her that defied normal thought.
They were heading through the only road in the town, the few shops and houses making up the largest settlement in the area. Charlie's silence was not martyred, and in his mood he almost missed the man who stepped out from around side of their hotel. Charlie was too tired to take in many details, noting only that the man was handsome and self assured; That and the brief flash of recognition as his eyes glanced across the two of them. No; Charlie realised that the man had recognised Lois, not him. The look was there only for an instant, and then the man was gone, behind them. Charlie looked behind. The man didn't do the same. Charlie struggled to catch up with Lois.
"Lois," he paused for breath. "Lois, that man we just passed — do you know him?"
Lois glanced back at Charlie. "Man? What man?"
Charlie sighed. Perhaps he'd be better off as a librarian. Books weren't great on conversation, but they weren't very demanding either. "That man we just passed recognised you, Lois, but hid it pretty quickly. I thought you said you'd never been here before."
"I haven't." The voice was petulant.
"Well, I think we should contact the office; I don't like this."
"Relax, Charlie; I've never been here before, and there is not even the slightest possibility that anyone here knows me. I've only just got onto this story. He was probably just captivated by my winning charm." Lois gave him her smile. Charlie had to admit there was some possibility to that — he grinned, careful not to let Lois see — if he was smiling at her "winning charm", the man obviously didn't know Lois.
Clark had searched a thirty mile radius from where Lois's plane was due to land; He'd located what appeared to be the gun-runner's camp, but that aside he'd noticed nothing unusual. There had been two camps that he could find, though they appeared to be unrelated. Some of the equipment at one of the camps looked a little odd, but that was nothing unusual for this sort of area. Some of it no doubt dated back to before the first world war.
Once he'd mapped out the local area in his head, he couldn't really do anything but wait. Lois wasn't due to arrive for several hours, but when she did, no harm would come to her whilst he was alive. He decided to do one more scout around, just to make sure.
Lois carefully poked her head round the huge tree bole, idly brushing her hair back. There was a quiet _snap_ behind her, and she spun, finger to her lips. "Shhhh". Charlie thought that that was probably louder than the twig snapping, but decided it would be wiser not to say anything. He waved down her frantic signals to be quiet and whispered to her.
"Quiet, Lois? You're making more noise than I am." He checked his camera; The humiliation of losing a critical shot was something to be experienced once only. Charlie had suffered once, and never again. The camera was ready, as he knew it was, but it never hurt to check, especially since he'd barely had time to unpack it before Lois had hurried them off. He hadn't wanted to come on this trip, but Perry had a silver tongue when he wanted something, and the way he'd phrased it had made a trip with Lois seem like heaven. Charlie hadn't worked with Lois for a long time, and now he remembered why. She _was_ the best, but… He sighed and moved into position, removing the lens cap from his camera. Lois hadn't said anything more, which was out of character since she always liked to get the last word.
Charlie peered around the other side of the tree. What he saw wasn't what he'd been expecting.
There was a small clearing ahead, as Lois had said there would be, and there were a large number of packing crates in various states of assembly or disassembly, which was also to be expected. What Charlie had not expected was to find it looking, in part, like a battleground. There were at least three men dead, lying in pools of blood, and there were several others either prostrate with agony or clutching wounds of one kind or another. It looked as thought the fight had been short and bloody, and for some reason had appeared to end in a stalemate. There appeared to be two sides; five remaining on one, six on the other though one of those did not appear to be carrying a weapon. Those that were armed were carrying machine guns and were standing in awkward poses that seemed to suggest both frozen rabbits and striking snakes at once. Charlie swung his camera off his shoulder as quickly as possible and began to shoot, the whirring of the camera almost inaudible against the background noise of the jungle.
The first reel of film used, Charlie turned to look for Lois whilst reloading. He almost dropped the camera when he couldn't see her. He spun around. Nothing. Facing the clearing again he suppressed a groan when he saw Lois edging forward in what he judged to be a pretty good leopard crawl. The two sides were talking, but too quietly for the words to be distinguished against the sounds of squawking birds and chittering critters. It appeared as though Lois wanted to hear what was being said.
Clark banked slowly round the edge of the perimeter he'd defined for himself and decided to head back to the airport to follow Lois in. He'd checked out the whole area several times and there was nothing of note except in the small clearing where the gun-runners were camped. There were quite a few of them, but he felt that even without his help Lois would have managed to sneak in and out; they were a disorganised and undisciplined bunch. The air had been rather tense, but that didn't worry him. If they all shot each other before Lois arrived, so much the better.
Clark was careful as he approached the airstrip; there was no radar, but it wouldn't do for someone to spot him. No doubt, given the area, any such story would be dismissed out of hand, but there was no point in taking chances. That meant landing about half a mile away and walking the rest of the way. Even if he were willing to risk being seen in the air, he certainly did not want to scare the pilot of the plane and possibly cause a crash. From what the other Lois had told him, Tempus at least believed that it was possible to change the future by altering the past — that was what he was here for after all.
Clark judged that he was about ten minutes early. The other Lois had told him that _her_ Clark did not wear a watch because it would be too obvious a similarity between his two alter-egos. He suspected that if his own experience was anything to go by, a watch was unnecessary anyway. He'd always had an un-erring sense of time, and could guess the time accurate to about five minutes.
Twenty minutes later he was beginning to get worried. He headed for the main building on the site. There was no control tower as such, but flights were tracked to enable deliveries to be picked up. It was likely that the plane Lois was coming in on would be carrying cargo other than the two reporters.
Bantu wasn't his best language, and the chances were that the dialect spoken would not be one he was familiar with, so he was pleased to find that the sleepy man he found in the building spoke French, though he showed a marked reluctance to do anything — the post was clearly a sinecure, and anything that involved work, however minor was definitely to be avoided.
"No. There's nothing due in for two days now — some postal cargo and medical supplies I think." The man gave a realistic though obviously false yawn. "I suggest that you come back then if you want anything from the flight."
"No, you don't understand. There's a flight due in today; From America. I'm supposed to meet some people coming in on it." That wasn't quite a lie; He was supposed to meet Lois because he wanted to, he just hadn't told anyone.
The man gave Clark a poisonous look, and slowly levered himself up out of the chair where he'd been sleeping. He pulled forward a logbook and checked through it, mouthing the words as he drew his finger down the lines.
He shook his head. "There you go; came in earlier today, in the morning. Not my shift. Left about…" he looked up at the old wall clock, ticking loudly above the door. "…about four, five hours ago."
"It can't have done." Clark's voice was pleading. "It wasn't due in till ten minutes ago. Flights are never early." Well most flights involving him were, but his experience with commercial airlines had not been for the better.
"Well my friend, this one was. The book says that they loaded up early, everyone was there so the pilot took off." He looked up, an easy grin on his face. "Private airfield. They can leave when they want." He shook his head. "Sorry, looks like _you're_ late this time. Now if you don't mind, I have lots to do." Without waiting for a reply, the man lay pointedly back in his chair and pulled a hat over his head.
The man hurriedly grabbed it off a moment later; The sudden gust of wind was gone as quickly as it had come, apparently taking the American with it. Crossing himself, the man carefully put the hat back over his face and lay back in the chair.
Clark didn't care whether he'd been seen or not, he was too concerned about Lois. Perry had mentioned nothing about the plane being early. On the other hand it had sounded like a spur of the moment thing; If neither Lois or Charlie returned alive then there would have been no one to tell him. Four hours was a long time though. He couldn't see Lois taking that long to settle into the hotel they had to have booked. No doubt she'd be out of there as quickly as possible to check out the gun-runner's camp — knowing Lois she'd already got all the details and was one her way back to the States. Clark knew that things didn't work that way though, and moreover, he knew that they _hadn't_ happened that way.
A flock of birds were scattered by Superman's vortex as it swept over them, pulling not a few feathers loose. The clearing was but seconds away for Superman, but Clark was concerned nether-the-less; _something_ had happened to Lois in the past, he would never forgive himself if he had had the chance to change things and he'd blown it.
Charlie held his breath, hardly daring to move as Lois crept closer. His heart beat frantically against his ribs, loud in his ears. He carefully re-loaded the camera and prepared it. He might well be worrying for Lois, but he probably should be concerned for himself in case he missed a shot that Lois wanted, and no doubt if she alerted anyone _he'd_ be the one shot — Lois would just give them a _look_ and walk off.
Lois had crept to within about twenty five feet of the two sides, apparently well hidden by the dense undergrowth. In her characteristic way, she brushed her hair back from her ears and leaned further forward.
Charlie slowly released his breath when it appeared as though Lois was not going to get any closer, and raised his camera. His heart nearly leapt out of his throat when there was a cry behind him and he felt something prod into his back. Frantic he spun around, losing his balance in the process. As he fell to the ground he saw two of the gun-runners behind him. One had just called out to those in the clearing, the other had jabbed him with the barrel of his machine gun. The one who'd called out was waving other people over, and pointing to Lois. Charlie saw one of the men reach out for his camera and instinctively pulled it back, fending him off with his free hand. Charlie saw a slow snarl creep across the man's face as he stepped back and brought his gun into line with Charlie's head. He saw the man's finger tighten on the trigger as he heard Lois cry out behind him.
Clark was heading for the clearing as fast as he could, sensing that something was wrong. He heard a woman cry out. He'd recognise that voice anywhere. _Lois_. Straining mightily he increased speed and flashed through the clearing at supersonic speed, his eyes picking out the two sides in the clearing, four people off to one side with three others converging. One of the four was Lois, though she did not appear to be in immediate danger despite her cry. It looked as though she'd spotted one of the men about to fire on someone lying on the ground.
All the man saw as he pulled the trigger was a brown flash. He looked down at his stinging hands, eyes wide at the red welts already appearing. His gun had simply vanished from his hands. He wondered what had happened to the bullet, since he'd heard the gun fire it's first shot.
Charlie shuddered as he realised how close he'd come to dying. He'd seen the man pull the trigger, had _thought_ he'd heard the sound of the gun firing, even if he shouldn't have heard a shot aimed at him; the gun's barrel was pointed straight at his forehead. His breath came out in shudders as he tried to pull himself together. It wasn't over yet.
Lois could only gape. She'd called out when she saw Charlie about to be shot, knowing the futility of it, but unable to help herself. Now she didn't know what to think. Something had flashed past her eyes, and after she'd blinked the gun was gone from the man's hand.
Clark crumpled the gun in one hand, and squashed the hot bullet in his other. He flung both away into the jungle, a danger to no one now. He spun round to head back. Lois was still in trouble.
He flashed in towards the clearing, eyes darting around to scan for any threat. He nearly stopped as one of the men came into view. Clark knew him, and he should have been locked up in another universe.
Tempus was back.
About to descend, Clark was suddenly struck by a strange force; it felt like nothing he'd encountered before and stopped him dead in the air. He struggled against its invisible clutches but whilst he was making progress it was too slow. He felt himself being drawn to the ground.
Suddenly a voice cried out, the resonant tones radiating command.
"Stop!" Silence descended as everyone halted in shock. Lois turned to see who'd called out and saw a tall, handsome man with arrogant eyes, incongruously dressed in a suit, cuff one of the gun-runners to the ground when the man did not follow his command instantly. The man a had large handgun, apparently no match for the other's machine gun, but the man fell back cowed, none-the-less. She slowly stood, there being no point in trying to hide any longer, and looked around. For all that her situation appeared to be perilous, she felt strangely calm. Everyone else appeared to be looking around in as much surprise as she was, so Lois scanned for an opportunity to escape. Her hopes sank when she laid eyes on Charlie; He was being dragged to his feet by one of the men who'd discovered them; from the spreading bruise on his cheek, he'd been struck at least once. Not all the men surrounding Charlie were concentrating on him or the man who'd called out though; two of them were staring open-mouthed at something in the air off to one side. Lois turned to try and see what they were staring at, and couldn't help but stare herself as she caught a glimpse through the trees of what appeared to be a man hanging in mid-air surrounded by a glowing blue field. She doubted that anyone actually in the clearing would be able to see the same sight, but hesitated to point it out; anything unusual might be an opportunity.
Before Lois had a chance to do anything else she was flung to the ground by a titanic explosion, the shock wave following a blinding flash and fireball. When she recovered the man was gone, apparently taking with him a large portion of the jungle. The people in the clearing, not having been as close to the blast were already back on their feet, some of those closer than Lois were still stunned.
Lois shook her head to clear it. There were three more men in the clearing now, and they were headed in her direction. The look in their eyes was not pleasant.
Clark clutched his head as consciousness returned. His whole body felt as though a thousand soldiers had been marched over it, and he guessed that his head felt the way many of his friends felt after a night out drinking.
He blinked his eyes open, everything snapping crisply into focus. He was lying in a clearing burnt out of the forest; from the heat still radiating from the ground, it had been burnt recently. He levered himself off the ground and tried to stand up. He had been hit by some sort of explosion, and was still a bit groggy. He was stopped halfway by a forcefield, apparently the same as the one that had held him earlier, though this time it was not visible until he bumped into it causing it to flicker, shimmers mapping out the points where it touched him. Not ready to force the issue, he sat back down and looked around.
Four men had risen at his movement and were approaching. Three of them were holding strange weapons, none like any he'd seen before, and each different. The fourth held what looked like a small computer and a remote control device. It was the last man who spoke when the four were arranged around Superman. They seemed reluctant to approach too closely, though whether or not that was because of him or the forcefield Superman did not know.
"Who are you and why are you interfering?" the man's voice was high pitched and it grated on Superman's ears. It was also emotionless and cold.
"Perhaps I could ask the same of you?" Superman looked around. None of the men showed any interest in this, no anger, irritation or any other emotion.
"You are an anachronism and should be removed. Before we do that we must know who you are, why you are interfering and where you came from. Tell us."
Superman folded his arms.
The men did not move or make any comment. They seemed happy to wait till the end of time. Which perhaps they were. Superman, however, had other concerns. The fate of Lois was uncertain. He was not going to get this close and fail.
"If I am out of my time, you most certainly are also; You can hardly claim that this…" he waved his arms around to indicate the forcefield. "…is current technology, and those weapons you're carrying…"
"Constrain your replies to match the question."
Superman was fed up with the conversation, and he didn't have time to continue anyway. Bunching his muscles he leapt up as hard as possible, trying to break through the forcefield with brute strength.
"Cease your struggles. They are futile. The containment field can hold…" the man broke off, for the first time showing some emotion, though it flickered so briefly across his features that it was impossible to decide what it had been. At his words, Clark's anger had been fuelled further and gritting his teeth he strained harder. Without warning there was an electronic screech from the remote-control and simultaneously the field had vanished. With it, so did Superman. With nothing holding him back all his energy was suddenly released. He had a vague sense of some of the weapons firing at the spot where he'd been held, moments too late.
The man holding the remote glanced at it. The generator had shut down, overloaded. It would take time to repair. He spoke without looking at the others.
"I do not know what that was. Have you encountered such before?"
Each in turn indicated that they had not. "No".
Satisfied, the first man continued.
"It was presumably a construct, though I have never encountered one so powerful before. It is possible that it is part of the disruption. Officer 378, you will find any references to such a device, in this or any other time. Officer 379 and Officer 413, you will repair the containment field. I will remove the other anachronisms."
Without a further word the man handed the remote to one of the men in exchange for the man's weapon. Calibrating it, he activated a device on his belt and levitated into the air, before turning and heading off.
Lois looked at the men approaching. They did not appear to be part of any of the groups arranged in the clearing, being dressed differently if nothing else. Each wore a solid band around their necks, metallic looking, though coloured black. They were carrying what appeared to be weapons, though of what kind Lois did not know. Strange knobs and spikes protruded at odd angles, deceiving the eye. Lois, however was not concerned with appearances at this point. The men approached to within ten meters and then as one raised their weapons, apparently unworried that everyone else in the clearing did likewise. Many of the watchers appeared to be confused as to who exactly were their enemies as they nervously moved to try and cover several targets at once.
The centre man of the three, a tall slender figure, spoke first.
"Well, Officer. Would you like to arrest us before we shoot you?" This provoked amusement from the other two. The first smiled wryly at the others before turning back. Lois shook off her surprise and opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off before she could begin.
"No, I don't think we need to hear you go through the motions after all." the man smiled. "Goodbye, officer."
Lois prepared to run, frightened as she'd never been before — the man in front of her gave every indication of being about to shoot her down in cold blood. From his words he had apparently mistaken her for someone else, but wasn't going to give her time to tell him that.
He was halted by a shot. Looking around he spotted the man who'd stopped the fighting earlier.
The tall man spoke angrily. "Keep out of this, _static_. This is none of your concern."
"Oh but I think it is. This woman has plagued me far too often to allowed a quick death. I won't let you deprive me of my pleasure."
Lois had had enough.
"Will everyone stop accusing me of being someone I'm not. You!" she indicated the leader of the three newcomers. "I'm no law official, so you can stop pointing that weapon at me. And you!" turning to the suited man. "Whoever you are, I've never laid eyes on you before, so I don't see how I can have plagued you for as long as you seem to think I have."
"Come now, Lois." This was spoken with mock reproach. "You mean to say you _still_ don't remember me." The man's smile said that not only did he know that Lois had never seen him before, but that he was going to play this game anyway. "After all this time. A man could get quite depressed."
The tall man turned to one of the others.
"Jilse. Any of these morons important to the timeline?"
The bulkiest of the three men lowered his weapon long enough to locate a strange instrument from an inside pocket. He waved it around, appeared disappointed with the result, shook it, and tapped the screen.
"Can't tell, Flix. Either they all are or none are. Something is interfering with the readings." He nodded towards Lois. "We know she's viable; The rest? I say waste 'em, we don't have time for this crap."
The laughter was long and loud. "I like your style, little man." Brushing down his suit the man seemed blissfully unconcerned with the threat. "Get right down to the point. Lay the issues out for all to see." He snapped his fingers.
Half of the men in the clearing, apparently waiting for just this signal, opened fire. Lois responded without thought, dropping to the ground and looking around to be sure not to miss anything. She'd been in similar situations more times than she liked to think about, and knew that if you blinked you'd never straighten out what actually happened. She wasn't sure looking made any difference in this case though; She could _see_ what was happening, but it didn't make it any more understandable.
The three men were still standing, unmoving, in the hail of bullets. Each was surrounded by a patchwork of blue splashes as the bullets hit _something_ and stopped dead. Every now and then there'd be a flash of sparks as one of the bullets ricocheted off the protective field.
This display of wizardry seemed to settle the issue for the remainder of the people in the clearing, from both sides; They all decided that the three were their real enemies and opened fire as well, perhaps hoping that shear volume would suffice where smaller numbers had failed. This seemed to galvanise the men into action. The largest of the three raised his weapon, long and thin, the end distorted with off-shooting spikes. A single pencil thin beam of light twinkled into existence, cutting the man who'd first opened fire in half. The man fell to the ground without a sound. The big man turned to the others and grinned.
"Stitch that!" his grin widened and he turned back, this time the others also bringing their weapons to bear. Before they could fire there was a load crack, and the big man fell back with a cry, one hand going back to clutch his shoulder.
"Damn, missed. This will never do." The suited man gave an insouciant smile and raised the gun to fire again, only to dive to one side with an unexpected turn of speed when the tall man fired his weapon. A staccato rattle was what Lois heard. What she saw looked like lightning, chewing up the ground, chasing the moving target. The gun raised a huge cloud of ripped up earth, obscuring the whole area. One of the gun-runners, who had not moved so quickly, gave a piercing scream and dropped to the ground clutching the ruins of a leg and hip.
Lois was suddenly gripped from behind by fingers of steel and pulled to her feet. Before she could react she was fifty feet in the air and accelerating rapidly towards the setting sun. Panicking she frantically craned her neck back, kicking her legs and clawing backwards with both arms. A calm voice spoke into her ear, the other way to the way she'd been trying to turn.
"Shhhh, Lois, you're safe now." the voice was reminiscent of her mother's soothing her after a childhood nightmare, though her mother's voice had never been that reassuring. It was a man's voice, and filled with warmth. She turned to see a concerned face gazing at hers, eyes searching for something.
"I… uh… what…" Lois had never felt so tongue tied before. She mentally stilled herself and considered the situation. Suddenly she remembered what was happening. "Charlie!"
"Don't worry, I'll go back for him." The ground approached rapidly, resolving into a clearing by one of the tracks that passed for roads in the Congo. By the speed they'd been travelling she guessed they were at least half a mile away. Before she could confront her rescuer, if that was what he was, there was a subdued whoosh, raising a cloud of dust, and the man was gone. Lois could only gaze in wonder at the receding form.
Charlie blinked his eyes. He could scarcely believe what he'd just seen. When the shooting had started, he'd instinctively fallen to the ground, much as he'd seen Lois do. This had undoubtedly saved his life, as he knew the men behind him would not have held their fire till he was out of the way. Once it was obvious that he was not going to be killed instantly, Charlie had looked around to where he remembered Lois to be. She'd been lying with her head raised, apparently unconcerned for herself, when a speed-blurred human form had descended and gabbed her, departing almost too rapidly for the eye to follow. He blinked again but Lois did not reappear.
He looked around the high skyline, the angle steep from the tall trees. Just when he was about to look down again, he spotted a speck heading to the clearing out of the fringes of the sun. The figure was moving rapidly, and appeared to be dressed in some kind of uniform. Lois was nowhere in sight. Suddenly there was a shout from the clearing.
When Charlie turned he was shocked at what he saw. He'd only looked away for a few seconds, but now most of the gun-runners, from both sides, were on the ground either dead or badly wounded from a variety of weapons; some were cut up from the laser like weapon, some were burned, and some appeared to have been shot with a rapid fire projectile weapon of some kind. Of the man in the suit there was no sign, though the tallest man appeared to be wounded in addition to the injury sustained by the big man earlier. The shout he'd heard had been from one of the remaining gun-runners, all of whom were now running madly for the trees. For some reason the three standing in the centre of the clearing made no move to stop them. Instead they turned to face Charlie.
He heard the last man, one who had not spoken before, mutter something that sounded like "Oh well, one more won't hurt…" before drawing a bead on Charlie with the strange weapon he was carrying.
Charlie cried out reflexively, but before he even heard the sound of his own voice there was a blurred flicker as something shot between him and the man's weapon. The flash of the weapon's firing was hidden by the figure in front of him, but Charlie's legs still shook as he realised how close to death he'd come, again. There was a sound to his left. He spun to face it. Another figure was descending into the clearing. This one was moving in a standing position, and was carrying a weapon. It was the flying figure he'd seen earlier, dressed in black. The gun was pointed at Charlie.
Superman turned at the shot. He'd not heard the other's approach, his attention focused on the three in the clearing. The plasma shot that had hit him had burned fiercely for a moment, but that pain had gone, and with it, he thought, the danger. That had not been the case however. Charlie was lying in the ground, a look of astonishment on his face. Most of his chest was missing, vaporised by the man hovering in the clearing.
Lois looked around. The road stretched off into the dusty dusk in both directions. However much she wanted to wait for her rescuer to return, she did not want to hang around in the middle of an unknown jungle. Sighing, she adjusted her broad jungle hat, still miraculously held in place, and mentally flipped a coin. Muttering to herself about Charlie and compasses, she headed off into the sunset.
Lois barely noticed the time going by, too occupied with thoughts of the mysterious stranger who had flown down into the clearing, picked her up as easily as she would a child, and carried her off to safety. The glimpses she'd had of him offered little in the way of explanation. All she knew was that for a brief time in his arms, she'd felt _safe_. For some reason that upset the normally calm Lois. That he'd been dressed, incongruously, in what looked like jungle gear, rather than the costumes one might expect from comics mattered little. Human or alien, no one with a voice so soothing could be construed a threat.
The voice that startled her from her reverie was equally soothing, though it held a glimmer of smug satisfaction that sent shivers down her spine.
"Hello again, Lois. Glad you could make it. Getting a bit noisy back there wouldn't you say?"
Lois stepped back a pace, and realising that she'd done so, chose bluster as the best course.
"Ahhh, another one of the 'Hello, Lois, prepare to die' brigade. If I were this well known back in Metropolis I wouldn't need to write for a living."
"So unkind? What have I done to deserve such unthinking hatred?" The man gave himself a smile. "And such a fate too. Everywhere I go, up pops Miss Lane and a certain boy in blue." He made a theatrical gesture, indicating the crystal sky above, now flooding with darkness. "One could grow quite distressed with the sound of lady luck's tumbling dice; if only snake's eyes were so certain."
"Who are you? And how do you know me?" Lois paused, only to continue as the man was about to reply. "And what right do you have to threaten me?" Lois was angry now, and ready to keep going. "And… And…"
"Lois. Lois." his pronunciation of her name was both chiding and patronising. The man bowed with a flourish, doffing an imaginary hat. "My name is Tempus." He smiled. "Whilst you may not know me, I most certainly know you, and have many reasons for holding you in less than the highest regard. Since your counterpart is temporarily out of reach, and since you have so conveniently fallen into my hands I must, perforce, satisfy my requirements with the unknowing." At Lois's rapid back-peddling, Tempus drew his handgun from his jacket. "Unfortunately the presence of that muscle brain Clark Kent forces me to act somewhat precipitously, and you will be required to facilitate my escape. He has an irritating habit of turning up at the right moment, though this time I have no doubt that he is here for you rather than my good self. Fate, it seems, is not done with me, and as usual I have been dealt one card short of a flush. You will make me a fine joker." The man closed in, and asked in a conversational manner "I don't suppose you have any kryptonite handy do you? No, I thought not."
Lois looked aghast at the man, who was clearly insane. She wasn't prepared to risk his gun though; it alone had proved effective against the defenses of the three strangers who'd also appeared to want to kill her, and she doubted that her skin would fare her better. Lois Lane seemed to be popular today, and she'd find out why if it was the last thing she did. Lois decided that perhaps she ought to rephrase that thought.
Clark was frozen with indecision; For all that Charlie was clearly dead, he still had an instinctive urge to try and help. He'd resigned himself to the fact that he would never be able to help all those in trouble, however much he might want to, but as ever it was the individuals that affected him the most. Charlie must have seen him rescue Lois and perhaps hoped the same for himself. To have that hope snatched away at the last moment was a cruel way to die.
Clark glanced at Charlie's killer. It was the leader of the men who'd captured him earlier, though he did not appear to be immediately threatening at the moment. The other three, by appearance those he'd met four years in the future — two days ago, also seemed a little unsure. The earlier scene was re- enacted. Fewer players, but all were equally unsure as to who was the real enemy and who just a threat.
Chisjor spoke to Flix without turning. "Shit, never gets any easier does it. I guess this guy's mobile too. How come you didn't pick up his movements?"
Flix grunted, but said nothing.
"We didn't pick up mister TP over there, the vanishing lady, or mister sarcastic either." Jilse was absently rubbing his shoulder wound, itching as it healed.
Chisjor laughed, a little crazily to Clark's ears. "I guess we should get a show of hands then — okay people, own up, anyone actually belong in '93?"
Jilse turned to Flix when no one answered. "Oh well, I guess I can shoot them all."
The man uniformed in black chose that moment to speak.
"Jilse Maron, Flix Yuand, Jake Halivand, you are all wanted by the Temporal Police for multiple violations of the Temporal Code. I, Officer 56, as a duly appointed representative of the Temporal Police am arresting you in preparation for trial. Release your weapons or be destroyed." Officer 56 turned to Superman. "Construct, you are judged in violation of the t-Metrop treaty and a hazard to time. Shut down, you will be destroyed shortly."
Clark decided that it was time to act. Lois could still be in danger, from these people if no one else. Unarmed they would be less dangerous. He stepped towards Chisjor, the man closest to him.
Chisjor and the other two reacted instantly, and faster than Clark had ever seen humans move before.
Flix's weapon was a projectile weapon, though the rate of fire made it appear like a laser of some form. Hundreds of harder-than-steel rounds impacted on Superman with devastating force, spinning him round and knocking him down. Chisjor's weapon produced a cone effect, visible by the distortion it caused in the air. Subjected to random and powerful shocks Clark shuddered on the ground, every atom trying to separate from every other, only Superman's dense structure and personal field providing any defense. The ground beneath him churned, turned to fine dust by the shocks. Jilse's laser seemed to be the least effective, perhaps due to Superman's solar induced powers, but it was still a powerful weapon.
Chisjor stopped firing. The shock inducer was creating too much dust, obscuring everyone's vision. The others stopped as well, since Clark had stopped moving. He called to the hovering man.
"Oi! Cop! You said it was a threat to time; ours as well as yours. Help us before it recovers. We can settle our differences later." Chisjor turned back to Clark. The dust had been largely cleared by the laser, molten slag bubbling round Superman's still form. "Is it dead?" Chisjor's words seemed to have a revitalising effect, for Clark groaned and tried to rise. "Tough beggar, isn't it." Chisjor fired his weapon again, causing a fountain of liquid rock to splash everywhere. Clark fell back down.
"Careful you fool." Jilse flicked the rapidly cooling mess off his boots. He looked at Officer 56. "Well, you got anything that can destroy this? We don't seem to be having much luck." at the other's lack of response, Jilse grew angry. "Look, if you're not going to help… I doubt _you_ can survive a giga-laser." He waved his weapon at the policeman. "This _thing_ is as much a threat to you as to us. Your instruments must have shown you the temporal effect; It's not just us that will disappear in a few hours — the whole timeline is rearranging itself, 2030 onwards, and I don't think you feature in the rerun."
Officer 56 appeared to make up his mind. "Very well. The code does allow for this situation. We will combine our efforts. After resolution you will surrender or relocate. Accept."
Jilse looked at Flix. Flix shrugged his shoulders. "Agreed. This is a lousy decade anyway." The four, three uneasy and one impassive, turned to look at the motionless form on the ground.
Officer 56 pulled a comm-unit from his belt. "Report." Replacing it he turned to the three criminals.
"My time console shows three nexii. This one was judged the most volatile. There is no indication of a single individual being the cause." He gestured at Clark. "I also picked up no signs of this one's arrival or movements. Explain."
Flix shrugged again. "Whatever it is, it's new. It first showed up in '96, along with a woman who we were about to dispose of before…" he confronted the officer. "Who's movements _have_ you picked up? _We've_ only just got here, you've just said that this thing doesn't show up on your sensors, though we know it's mobile — for all we know _you_ could be the cause of all this."
"Negative. Temporal anomalies were apparent before TP intervention." he paused, thinking. Then "If you arrived within the past ten hours then you are not responsible either and have not caused the effects Central picked up. If it was not this construct either, then there is another displaced person in this time."
Jilse nodded. "Mister Sarcastic. That gun of his looked like a charged p-rg. Had to have been to penetrate our shields. Not from this era…"
Flix continued for him. "Yeah, so that makes another player in this game. Us, you," a nod to the policeman "the vanishing woman — Lois Lane will do for a name at the moment, that," a nod to Clark, "and Mister Sarcastic. Nice name, Jilse. We know that we're not to blame, you probably aren't, so it's one or all of the other three. When does this nexus converge?"
Jilse and Officer 56 spoke almost simultaneously. "Five hours." and "Five hours, seven minutes." respectively.
Flix looked worried. "Not long. So we need to find out which of them is involved and undo whatever they've done or are about to do. Even if we can kill whatever this thing is, we don't know that it will resolve in our favour. I hadn't realised how many forces were involved. I suppose it's a good thing we didn't kill Lois Lane just now; we need to find her and Mister Sarcastic and get some answers."
Officer 56 spoke. "We must hold the construct until we are ready. It has already penetrated a level five containment field."
"We've got one rated at 4.75. Combined they might work. Chisjor."
"On it." Chisjor headed off out of the clearing.
As he was leaving three black clad forms entered, raising their weapons as they did so.
Officer 56 halted them. "Code 3262, section seven. These are not targets. For now."
"So kind." Jilse was scathing.
"Officer 378, what did you determine?"
"Nothing. There is no mention of any such construct in any of our files. It is almost certainly a time phenomenon."
"Good, that matches my conjecture. Officer 413. Restrain the construct. Criminal Jake Halivand will be supplying an additional field. Ensure maximum compatibility." When officer 413 had left to gather the required equipment, officer 56 turned to the other two again. "Officer 378 find out why we have only detected the movements of these." He gestured to Flix, Jilse, and the direction that Chisjor had headed off for. "There are three other, apparently disparate, displaced people in this time. How did they get here without alerting us?"
Lois struggled against Tempus's grip, to no avail.
"You don't have to grip so hard; you have a gun, I'm not going to run away."
"You're guardian angle is out there somewhere — I'm not going to give him any opportunity to snatch you away. Once I'm safe I'll release your arm. Then I'll shoot you, admittedly, but at least it won't hurt any more." Tempus seemed rather disinterested in the whole affair.
"Why won't anyone listen to me? I don't know you, I don't know those people in the clearing, and I don't know who it was who rescued me and then vanished leaving me literally in your clutches. I almost wish I'd listened to Charlie."
"Yes, I know that, Lois, but isn't it so much more fun this way?" Tempus gave Lois a broad smile.
"Hardly." Lois struggled an bit more, then stamped her foot, almost tripping up, as Tempus did not slacken his pace to accommodate her.
"That's what I always loved about you, Lois, such fire, such spirit. Now stop struggling or I shall knock you out and carry you. Your protestations are not becoming, Herbert always used to do a much better job."
Lois snarled in frustration and walked on for a while longer.
"Where are we going anyway. You may as well tell me, I'm not exactly going to do anything with the information am I? And who's Herbert?"
"Well, I suppose excitement is always enhanced by knowing a little, but not too much. We're currently headed for my time machine. I've accomplished all I can here at the moment, thanks to everyone deciding to crash the party, and I intend to head for less troubled climes."
"There's no need to treat me like a child." her voice spoke volumes.
"I would never do that, Lois, nauseating things, children. If you would like I can kill you any time you like — anything strike your fancy? Ancient Rome perhaps? You could scream whilst it burns. Or Paris in the spring. Such a charming city. One more corpse will hardly be noticed. I could even put up a gravestone for you. Probably going to have to anyway — it's never wise to interfere with your own past, and my past remembers someone very like you becoming somewhat concerned in Metropolis cemetery. Ahhh, I can just see stone 'One more story before I sleep…' sounds good, or maybe…"
Lois kicked at Tempus's shins, and succeeded in falling over.
"You really should be a little more dignified, Lois, what will people say?"
Tempus was surprisingly gentle helping her up, though his grip remained strong. "We've not got far to go, Lois, If I were you I would be thinking of a few suitable last words."
It took longer for Clark to recover this time, and the pain was a lot greater. As he recovered, he was careful not to show signs of stirring, since he had no desire to be rendered unconscious again. In the background he could hear two men talking, his superhearing easily making out the words. He recognised the first voice as being the leader of the men who'd first captured him, the second as being the tall man from the clearing.
"…your instruments are not as advanced as ours, you would not have picked up all the signs."
"There's not a lot in it, my friend, but that's irrelevant anyway; tell me what you've found."
"Officer 413 has determined that there are two additional time capable machines operating within a frame of 4 days and 100 miles. They are both working on the same, previously undetected, frequency — presumably utilising different principals to our own. This is why they have remained undetected for so long. The distortion they cause is displaced but still locatable once you know what to look for. One arrived about three days ago, having made a local hop of about two weeks; it could have come from anywhere prior to that. The other arrived about 15 hours ago, having travelled approximately four years; either 1989 or 1996. From your story we can safely assume it came from 1996."
"Only two? That would suggest that Lane and Mister Sarcastic are working together and the creature we've captured is working independently. Strange, I'd have thought them enemies from what they said in the clearing. And the creature stopped us from killing Lane…"
"Speculation is useless at this point. One of the machines is active, and we have located it nearby. It is likely that either one or both of the others will return to the machine. We will wait."
"It's all very well for you to say we'll wait; you're no different to the construct. Life or death — what's the difference? But I only have a couple of hours till resolution. I don't intend to go down without a fight."
"You will get your chance. The man, at least, has advanced weaponry. You are more than welcome to remove that threat for us."
"Thank you _very_ much."
"So who were all those people in the clearing? You seemed to know them." Lois could no more stop asking questions than the sun could stop shining. In the current situation it might also give her a chance of survival.
"I presume that you mean the charming trio so ignobly intent on relieving you of your life. I don't know them, I know _of_ them. They appeared to be one of the by-products of this universe's darker future; that is to say, time criminals. Distressingly advanced physiology. Given their presence and their killing of my associates, carefully chosen from this time, I can only assume that some representative of the authorities governing their time will also be along shortly — you can't go around chopping people out of time and not expect it to have an effect on the future."
"Are you insane? No, scratch that, I _know_ you're insane. You expect me to believe that you and they are time- travellers? I don't suppose you met H. G. Wells along the way did you?"
"No, Lois, I don't expect you to believe me. You always were far too self-righteous to believe in the simple things like time-travel. Superheros are more your style. But I do sincerely hope that H. G. Wells does turn up again, I would relish the opportunity to be finally rid of him as well."
"Ah-ha! So if you know me, but I've never seen you before, you must have met me in my future — So you can't hurt me, or you won't be able to meet me later." Lois shook her head, not quite sure what she'd just said.
"Lois, so sharp, so quick. So wrong. Unfortunately for you, I haven't met _you_ before, I _have_ met your counterpart in another universe."
"Ha! Good story, Beelzebub! Like I'm going to believe _that_!"
"Must you always punctuate your sentences with exclamation marks, Lois? It gets so tiring after a while. Believe what you will, it makes little difference to me."
"Well then, mister, who was that flying man then? Don't tell me. Mighty mouse? _Batman_?"
"Someone who I had thought I'd left behind in '96. That damned pain keeps showing up everywhere, though I suppose some of the blame must lie at my door this time — _that_ scheme certainly didn't go to plan. Never mind, once I've returned to my time-machine he will be easy to dispose of."
"So not infallible are we? Why…"
Lois suppressed a cry as she bumped into Tempus, who had stopped suddenly.
"Quiet, Lois, we're getting close to the time-machine, and I don't want to alert anyone."
"And why should I care?" Lois's whisper dripped sarcasm. She had been unconsciously leaning closer to Tempus to whisper. "Why am I whispering?" She spoke out loud, pulling away as much as his grip would allow.
Tempus's hand clamped over her mouth.
"Now-now, Lois, there is no need to get petty. Besides, I don't think you would like these other people, they don't treat women very well. Deplorable really." Tempus was dead-pan, though Lois could sense that he was laughing at his own words.
She struggled again, Tempus's hand muffling her shouts.
They had been walking for about half an hour, so Lois judged them to have covered about a mile and a half, working round the clearing. It seemed reasonable that Tempus would have another hideout nearby to where he'd set up the gun- exchange meeting. Obviously he was concerned that this hideout might have been discovered.
Glancing at the device Tempus drew out of a pocket, Lois decided that his story about time-travel might have some grounds — whatever it was, it looked very advanced. Tempus pressed a small stud on one side, and a holographic projection sprung into life, showing the area ahead in reduced size but great detail. Tempus grinned at her surprise. "Handy device this. Every criminal should have one. Fortunately I don't think they have them in this universe." Touching a pad on the top surface, Tempus began to move the image around. He quickly located what he was looking for, a rather ornate vehicle, looking like a four-wheeled carriage without wheels and the top down. It was standing out in the open; It did not appear as though Tempus had tried to hide it. Lois could not see any signs of life.
Tempus carefully moved the image around, observing the machine from all sides and pulled back, to look from a distance.
"Good disguise, no one will ever think to look for it out in the open." Lois hissed contemptuously in Tempus's ear.
"Quiet, Lois, just because we can see it doesn't mean that anyone can." The projection vanished as Tempus flicked the off switch. "And it looks as though it has remained undetected. Oh well, Lois, not long to go now, said your prayers?"
"Quite the Lothario, aren't we? Don't worry, Tempus, you'll get yours." Lois struggled in Tempus's grip again, but was pulled forward. Tempus often gave the appearance of fragility, but Lois could feel his fingers biting into her arm painfully.
Standing by the machine, Tempus half turned to face Lois.
"Well, Miss Lane, I really must go now; Sorry you can't come with me, but dead people are so inconvenient; you have to carry them everywhere." So saying, Tempus drew his weapon and aimed it, point-blank at Lois's forehead.
Lois executed a perfect outer-arm block, knocking the gun aside, but her kick was off target due to her awkward positioning. Lois looked on in dismay; Tempus still held on to the gun, and was bringing it round to bear again. Lois could see his finger tightening on the trigger.
Clark sat up in the enclosure. He could _feel_ something was wrong. How he knew, he couldn't tell, but somewhere Lois was in trouble.
The others in the clearing had turned at his movement, but Officer 56 indicated that no one should interfere. He drew his gun though, as did Flix and Chisjor.
Clark sprung into the air with all his strength, only to be stopped dead by the forcefield. This time he could make no progress, the small amount of give being the field taking up the strain, rather than any weakening. Clark gritted his teeth and urged himself to even greater effort, to no avail.
Officer 413 held up the control device for Officer 56, who gave a rare smile.
"Sorry construct. Impressive, but not enough this time."
Clark's vision was slowly dissolving into red, consciousness fading from the mighty exertion. He fell to the ground, drained.
The men surrounding Superman lowered their weapons and smiled at one-another.
Clark scanned around wearily, stopping when his eyes alighted on the field generators. The forcefield was transparent. Laser vision lanced out, striking the nearest of the two linked generators. Within moments a cherry-red glow could be seen spreading from the metal panel, causing sparks to fly from the screens and controls.
Clark fell back when the field in front of him mirrored over, reflecting his gaze into a zigzag path around him, stopping when it struck the ground. A legion of distorted Clarks stared back at Superman. The mirror was perfect, though slightly rippled. Everything was bathed in a pale acid light, apparently generated by the field. Superman raised his head and screamed in frustration, the shattering sound echoing for an eternity.
There was a double boom, so close together they were almost one. Lois slowly opened her eyes, amazed that she could do so. She could feel blood trickling down her cheek, a numb streak across her cheekbone indicating how close Tempus's shot had been to killing her. The pain would begin later. Tempus was clutching his hand, stunned by the shot that had ripped the gun from his hand. Either a good shot or a lucky one. That there had been no follow up coup-de-grace suggested that whoever had fired the shot had achieved their intention in disarming Tempus, and did not want to kill anyone. Yet.
Two figures stepped out into the clearing.
"Nice cloaking device you had there, Mister Sarcastic. Or should I say Tempus? Thought I recognised you from '96. Pity your machine's flux capacitor radiates at a fairly distinctive, if unusual, frequency. Leaving the machine running is great for a quick getaway, but not very effective if someone's disabled it." Jilse held up a complex device for Tempus to see.
"I'm afraid that I can't have you killing Miss Lane yet, both of you have some questions to answer. Then we'll see about who gets to play with who." Jilse turned to his companion, handing the strange component over. "If you would be so good, officer, perhaps you'll repair the damage and we'll head back."
The uniformed man did not seem happy following these instructions, but he obeyed without comment. When he had finished he turned to Jilse.
"We cannot use the device to return. Any temporal travel at this stage will be terminal. Time latency is greater than that remaining to us."
Jilse nodded. "Get everyone close to me." He holstered his weapon and reached for the collar around his neck.
Lois took that as an opportunity, and shouldered Tempus into the officer. As the two collided, Lois turned and ran for the clearing's edge, hoping to hide in the dense jungle. There was a shimmering flash ahead, and Jilse appeared in front of her smiling.
"Ahhh, Teleportation. What would I do without it?" He reached for Lois.
Her kick this time was perfectly aimed, the point of her toe striking the big man under his chin. Jilse's head moved about half an inch. He rubbed a thumb across his chin, savouring the forming bruise.
"Nice one, Lady. A little harder next time though."
Lois could only stare. The kick should have floored an ox.
Jilse shook his head slowly, a puzzled frown on his face. "You should be stronger than that. And you should know better than to try and run when I have a TC." His face assumed his casual smile again. "Never mind. My brain is not what I'm here for. Flix will figure you out." Jilse's hand snaked out with lightning speed and fastened round Lois's neck.
"Now, my little vixen, I suggest you don't struggle too much, your neck will break before my grip, and it's such a pretty neck too." Jilse pulled Lois over to Tempus and the officer, and reached up to his collar.
Clark looked up. He'd been trying to figure a way out of the forcefield, but his laser vision seemed to have no effect other than to heat the air up, he couldn't see through it, and he'd already tried to use brute force and failed.
An indentation formed in the field, looking similar to an air bubble in water, and moved inside the dome. Once half inside, the smaller bubble vanished with a soundless pop, revealing Lois and Tempus.
Lois was rubbing her neck, seemingly oblivious to the sweat streaked blood drying down the side of her face. Tempus's hands were cuffed behind his back, a scowl on his face. The two were talking, but the air was strained. Clark did not wait for them to finish, instead running to Lois, not quite sure how to act, but his concern overwhelming all other thought.
"Lois, you're hurt! What happened?" Clark gently cupped her face with his hand, turning her head to see the ugly injury running for a couple inches across her cheek and below her temple. His gut wrenched at the danger she'd been in, danger he'd been unable to prevent. "Who did this?"
Lois angrily shook him off. She wheeled to face him.
"You, him, everyone treats me like some object or child. I don't know you, and I don't care to know you. This situation is completely ridiculous, everyone in this stupid jungle seems to want to kill me." She swung a fist at him, and yelped in pain as it hit steel hard flesh.
Clark looked on in sympathy. "I don't want to hurt you, Lois. I want to help, if I can."
"How do you know my name anyway?" Lois was angry, but she still wanted answers. Pointing to Tempus "He says he's a time traveller. I suppose you're claiming you are too. And those people out there, I suppose they're the same? What can't you all stay in your own time?"
"Yes, Lois, I came here in a time machine." Clark paused, then "I know your name from someone very like you. I know _of_ you from my friends, but I would very much like to know you from _you_."
"Well why do you have to come back to now to do that, why not speak to me then?" Lois was intrigued despite herself. This man in front of her, sounded so earnest, so concerned. It was hard to stay angry.
Clark's reply was interrupted in it's inception by Tempus.
"This is sickening. A muscle-bound moron dribbling all over some self-important reporter. It's like I'm trapped in some ghastly melodrama. Any more and I shall dissolve into tears." Tempus looked up theatrically. "What have I done to anger the gods so? Try and get involved in a little harmless gun-running and the sky falls on you."
Clark rounded on Tempus. "Shut up, Tempus. You've brought this on yourself; and probably on Lois too. Unless you've anything constructive to say, I'd rather not listen to your whining."
"I don't think you have much choice, Clark, unless you've abandoned your principals all of a sudden?" Tempus's sarcasm was a little unsure, but he recovered when Clark made no comment. "No, I didn't think so…"
Lois interrupted. "Will you two stop it. It's fairly easy to see why you're here." She pointed at Tempus. "But you, Clark, if that's your name, why are you interfering?"
Clark started to speak, only to have Tempus interject again.
"Just as blind as always, Lois." Tempus was enjoying himself. "It should be obvious, even to you, the poor brute is in lust. It's almost enough to make me pity him."
"How can that be?" She turned to Clark. "I've never met you before, and If you're from the future, why not… unless…"
Tempus could barely contain himself. "And so it dawns. Delicious."
Clark felt like hitting Tempus, but restrained himself.
"You didn't make it back, Lois. There is no Lois Lane in the 1996 I came from."
"1996?" Lois wondered at the time difference, but decided that there were more immediate concerns. "What happened?"
"I'm not sure. The only source I have couldn't tell me. From what I've seen it's amazing there's anything left in 1996; Certainly Tempus and his friends out there are causing enough damage to history."
Tempus reacted angrily. "Damage? I was trying to make a few dollars. No harm done until you showed up with the goons from the 23rd century."
"No harm? How do you explain Lois's dea… disappearance then? You're not even from this time. I'd wager that you were the one that killed…" Clark could not bring himself to say that Lois had died, "…them originally, everything else would follow on from that."
Tempus was about to respond angrily, when understanding flickered across his face. "Yes, I suppose it would. Other than yourself, the two universes are not that different. If I kill Lois here, first time round, then there's no superman in the future, leading to… an alternate future with time criminals and police — the people we see outside. Except that in my past, second time round — so to speak — I recreated you, which would endanger their very existence. Ha! No wonder they haven't killed us yet — they don't know what caused the time upheaval; they don't know if it's something we've done or are about to do, and if it's something we've already done then they need to know what it was so they can undo it."
Lois looked around fearfully. She wanted to explore this apparent tale of her death, but there was a more apparent danger. "So, if I understand correctly, they have us here to find out what happened, after which they can kill us. Being in the jungle makes me think of bugs all of a sudden."
Tempus cursed, then smiled. "Well, I'm sure they will be open to reason."
Clark was struck by horrifying inspiration. Killing either him or Lois was the obvious solution, and since they'd tried and failed to kill him… Killing Lois wouldn't work in this case, but they weren't to know that. They obviously didn't know that the Lois they'd seen in 1996 was not the Lois here in 1993. "We've got to get out of here." Clark looked around but was at a loss as to what to do.
Lois began looking around frantically as well, looking for anything that might help.
"I presume you've tried to break out?" Tempus put on his best show of sarcasm, but there was an underlying fear there as well.
Lois looked around again, with less enthusiasm this time. She kicked the earth with her boot, hurting her toes. Suddenly she looked up at Clark.
"The bubble. Does it extend under ground as well? I don't suppose you could…" Lois made a digging motion with her hands.
Clark looked at her, hope shining in his eyes. He became a blur, spinning round faster than the eye could follow. He sank into the ground.
Lois looked at the hole in the ground. "What _is_ he?" She was more than a little in awe of the strange man. Could it be true what Tempus had said? Perhaps this Clark Kent was in love with her. Lois wasn't sure what to think about that.
Jilse had just about finished updating Flix on the situation when Chisjor interrupted them, clearly worried.
"Come on, guys, we don't have time to discuss this; The instruments are already showing initial effects of the resolution front — we don't have long left. Let's just kill them all and have done with it — time latency will prevent us from undoing anything they've done in the past anyway. All we can do is get rid of them and hope." Chisjor was nervous. They'd been in this sort of situation before, but previously it hadn't been _them_ about to have their game cancelled. He headed for the field generators. "Let's just evacuate the air from the dome, that'll finish off Lane and Tempus; who knows — leave it long enough it might kill that other thing too. If we survive, we survive — if not, at least we take someone with us."
Flix seemed to be uncertain, but he knew they had to act quickly. He nodded curtly. "See if you can get audio in there while you're at it. Might as well hear what they have to say."
Chisjor shook his head. "Sorry, can't be done. When it's opaque it blocks everything. Nothing gets in, nothing gets out."
Jilse nodded. "He's right. The thing was designed to contain nuclear explosions." he glanced at the shimmering dome. "It's a shame that the lady has to die with the others, not often you find one with such passion." He flushed as the others started to jibe him. "Cut it, guys; just making a comment." He couldn't help smiling though. "Ah, well, there's bound to be another one somewhere, sometime."
Chisjor flicked a switch on the console, and dome's surface began to contract slowly.
Superman burst up through the ground twenty feet from Jilse. He shook the dirt from his eyes, and saw the three criminals and the policemen scattered around the clearing; there was no way he was going to be able to disarm them all simultaneously. Already the seven men were turning on him. He flashed to the other side of the dome to gain some time; It was large enough to hide behind, and if he was fast he would be able to destroy his opponent's weapons as they came round the sides.
He was not expecting the attack to be as fast and ferocious as it was. Clark had grown up on various farms, and avoided trouble in Metropolis; it was only recently that he'd started to come up against criminals, and for the most part they were petty crooks and muggers. Flix, Chisjor and Jilse were experienced, dangerous men, and the policemen were effectively elite troops, unconcerned with personal safety. Three of the policemen flew over the top of the dome using their personal gravity belts, firing their weapons as they did so. Flix and Jilse darted round from one side of the dome, Chisjor and the remaining policeman from the other. Even Superman could not avoid the effects of the seven various weapons fired simultaneously. He managed to dodge the initial bursts from the projectile weapons, and the fierce laser beam, but the cone effects from the plasma gun and the shock inducer were too wide to avoid and enough to stun him temporarily.
Clark found himself writhing on the ground in agony for the third time in as many hours. If he didn't recover quickly, the combined might of the seven men would surely find some way to kill him. He struggled to his feet, fighting off the welcoming darkness.
Lois looked up at Tempus and decided that there was no point in waiting around. If nothing else, Tempus might take it on himself to try to kill her, hoping to gain favour with the men outside. Giving him a jaunty salute, she jumped down the hole, feeling as though she should be wearing a dress and chasing a rabbit.
Fortunately the hole was not deep, though it was filled with impenetrable darkness. She groped her way forward until a glow of light shone ahead. Peering upwards she could see starlight. Clark had tunnelled out at an angle, making the journey far easier than it would have been had she had to climb up a vertical hole.
Lois emerged, muddy and blinking, into the dim light of the Congo night, Lois was almost deafened by the noises coming from the other side of the dome, flashes of light illuminating the nearby trees.
Off to one side of the clearing was a large console. Lois had seen one of the men at it when she and Tempus had been placed inside the dome. She needed to destroy the force field to remove the danger of confinement again.
Picking up a nearby rock, Lois pounded on the lights and switches as hard as she could. The air was filled with the gratifying sound of crackles and hisses as sparks flew and fuses broke. One final bash and the dome winked out of existence, revealing the fight behind it. Lois gasped, her hand reflexively going to her mouth. Clark was on the ground, curled up. The men were still firing, maniacal looks on the criminals' faces. The policemen were impassive but looked determined. Her heart went out to the strange man who'd tried his best to help her; if she didn't do anything to help _him_… Her eyes fell on what looked like a gun, attached by a coiled hose to a large cylinder. She picked up the strange, heavy weapon and pointed it at the group, now closing in on Clark's motionless form.
Lois cursed in frustration. She couldn't fire the weapon to distract them, she didn't know what it did. She put her fingers to her lips and gave a piercing whistle, something her mother at least had never forgiven her for learning.
Silence descended as everyone stopped firing and spun around to face her. Lois raised the gun in what she hoped was a threatening fashion, and prayed that it would deter them.
Flix knew instantly what the gun was, and saw the look on Lois's face. The two together were one of the most worrying things he'd ever seen. He hissed out of the side of his mouth at his friends. "The I3!" He could see Jilse and Chisjor itching with indecision. He knew the problem as well. If they fired and hit the weapon, the chances were they'd all be killed in the resulting explosion. Hand behind his back he put up three fingers, then two, then one. The three men reached for their collars simultaneously and sparkled away, faint pops reaching Lois's ears from the air rushing in to fill the gaps.
The four policemen did not know what the I3 was, and moreover would not have cared if they did. All four raised their weapons and pulled the triggers.
Clark's ears still rung from the whistle. His hearing was especially sensitive to higher ranges, and the sound had jolted him back to consciousness. Every muscle screaming out for attention, he slowly inched round so he could see what was happening. Fortunately no one was looking at him anymore. He saw three of the men vanish, as the remaining four raised their guns again. He could see they were going to fire, whatever the consequence. Drawing from the last of his strength, he breathed in and then out as hard as he could, his frosty breath encompassing the tightly grouped men as they fired. The roiling mist engulfed the men, freezing the metal of their guns as fire poured out. Something had to give, and the weapons shattered, shrapnel and flames flashing in all directions.
Clark's strength left him and the night closed in again.
Lois saw the four men fall to the ground, lifeless corpses. Nothing could have survived that explosion. The gun dropped from her nerveless hands, and she rushed over to Clark, her heart thudding in her chest. She fell to the ground besides him, and cradled his head in her lap, feeling for a pulse. His skin was hard, but beneath it she could feel a faint beating.
Lois felt tears begin when there was a shimmering flicker near the console she'd left. Flix, Jilse and Chisjor appeared in a semicircle. Flix dropped his gun and picked up the I3.
"I think we've had enough of this for now, Miss Lane. Say goodbye."
Lois bowed her head and gave Clark a quick kiss. They'd come so close to surviving, only to fail at this late stage.
There was a distorted humming noise. Lois decided that the three men were savouring the moment and were not going to fire until she looked up, so she put on her most defiant smile and raised her head.
The three men were gripped by a strange glowing effect, spasms jerking their frames. Flix was in the act of pulling the trigger, but it looked as though his finger was not quite substantial. Lois realised that she could see the faint outlines of trees _through_ them. Jilse gave one last desperate cry, which faded hauntingly as he phased out of existence. There was a joint clatter as three guns dropped to the ground.
She looked around. The four bodies that had been nearby had vanished as well.
Clark looked up at the face peering down on him, and decided that the mud, blood, sweat and tear stained visage was the most beautiful he'd ever seen. He managed a painful smile. His heart soared when he received one in return.
"Hello, Clark." Lois wasn't sure it felt right, calling this stranger by his first name, but he had risked everything to save her… "Care to go home?"
Clark groaned and tried to sit up, managing it with Lois's help.
Suddenly his face flashed with fear.
"What is it? He's long gone, we don't need to worry about him anymore."
"No, we have to find him! He still has a time machine, and there's no telling where he plans to go." Clark forced himself to his feet. "Where is his time machine?"
"I don't know, we walked to it from where you left me, and Jilse brought us here by teleportation." Lois stopped, puzzled. "Why can I still remember them? And their weapons, why did they remain?"
Clark shook his head. "I don't know, Lois, I don't know any of the theory. Enough, we have to find Tempus." He wasn't sure he'd be able to fly long, but he picked up Lois and shot into the air.
Lois looked around. Everything looked different from the air. Then she saw a trail through the jungle, and pictured it from ground level. "There, over there."
Clark sped as fast as he was able towards where Lois was pointing.
They alighted just as Tempus reached his machine.
"Tempus!" Clark's voice was enough to startle wildlife for miles around, but Tempus barely reacted. He dived into the machine's seat.
"So long, Superman. I must be off."
Tempus activated the time machine.
Tempus jabbed repeatedly at the button, frustration growing.
Lois laughed. "Looks like that policeman didn't know how to fix the machine after all."
Clark lowered Lois to the ground and made his way over to Tempus.
"Sorry, Tempus, you have an appointment to keep. If I recall correctly, Herbert said that he left you with the police in the other universe. I suspect that you got there via here, but I'm sure the journey was far more fun this way?"
Lois felt a cloud lift from her. Tempus, whom Clark seemed to think was important, had been apprehended, and now she could head back to Metropolis with the story of the decade. She could feel another Pulitzer writing itself in her head.
"Right, let's pick up Charlie and head back to Metropolis. I assume you're from there, aren't you?"
Clark's face fell.
Lois could tell the news wasn't good.
"Charlie… He won't be coming back with us."
"What… What happened?" Lois had never felt happy around Charlie, but she never wished him ill either.
"One of the policemen shot him." Clark's voice said it all.
"Can't you…" Lois searched for words. "Can't you go back and rescue him. Or something." The last was spoken out of desperation.
"I'm truly sorry, Lois, but the people at the Planet, back in the time I came from, they knew Charlie was dead, he's buried in the city cemetery."
"What about me? I thought I wasn't supposed to have made it back either." Lois felt at a loss. How could she contest her own existence?
"No one knew what happened to you, Lois. As far as the world's concerned you've been missing for three years. If you show up, or don't show up, it won't matter." Clark looked into her eyes. "Except to me that is. And your friends back at the Planet."
"What do you mean? Missing for three years? Can't I just return…"
"Lois, if you go back now, to this time, you'll be changing history again. Think of all the things you might have done in three years, all the differences your life would have made. I think that time has been stretched enough as it is, you saw what happened to the others in the clearing." Clark stepped over to Lois, cradling her head as she wept for the dead. "It has to be this way, Lois. I'm sorry."
Lois pulled from Clark's arms and wiped away her tears.
"What about all the bits and pieces left behind from those _people_?"
"I scanned this place before I came here. There were all sorts of weird resonance's and distortions. I expect they were caused by the weapons and artifacts being broken down by the elements. I've lived in jungle environments before. It doesn't take long for the worst of disasters to fade away."
Clark looked over at Tempus.
"We've still got a lot to do though. Tempus to return to his own universe, someone has to have booked a certain plot in the cemetery, and there's a gravestone to raise. I suppose I was — will be — responsible for both of those. And the time machines. Now I've seen them both, I'm beginning to suspect they're the same one. So that means we have to put Tempus's back in his hideout for me to find. And since the place was sealed up, we won't be able to leave until I've broken the concrete entrance… I don't know how I'm going to stop the previous me from sensing our presence in there…" Clark trailed off, beginning to realise how much more there was to do. "We could be sorting out time forever."
Lois shook her head, forced to smile at his worried looks.
"Never mind, Clark, if the gravestone is for me, I'll have to help you come up with a suitable epitaph. It's not every day you get to do your own." She linked her arm with his.
"Right; where to, _Superman_?"