By Sheila Harper <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Original Air Date: May 9, 1999
Summary: An old threat resurfaces in a new form, and Lex Luthor intends to use it to destroy Superman — if it doesn't shatter Lois and Clark's relationship first. (Part 1 of 3.) Episode 8 of S6.
"But, Mr. Gendell—!"
Grant Gendell closed the folder that had been lying open on his desk. "I think that's reasonable, Dr. Trifyllis. I've been patient for three years because I think this kind of research is important. But there's no point in throwing money down a rat hole. If you can't give me any evidence that this process is possible, I'm not going to follow a dead-end line of research any further. I can use the money to support the old-fashioned kind of knowledge transfer. There are literacy and tutoring programs all over Metropolis that could use the help."
"Mr. Gendell, this isn't something that happens overnight—" Nick Trifyllis protested desperately, shoving his glasses back up on his nose. He perched on the edge of the visitor's chair in front of Gendell's massive oak desk, his slight frame tensed, his hands fisted in his lap.
"Three years isn't overnight. I'll stop by your lab tomorrow—" he glanced at his apointment book— "about one-thirty."
"But, Mr. Gendell—!"
"Goodbye, Dr. Trifyllis. I'll see you tomorrow."
"And what do you think we should have for dinner?" Clark Kent asked his nine-month-old daughter. Laura sat comfortably in one of her father's strong, flannel-covered arms as they both looked into the open refrigerator, dark heads close together. "Hmmm … chicken, bell peppers, onion … What d'you think, Laura-babe? Chicken fajitas? Or maybe—if we still have some pineapple—sweet and sour chicken?"
He picked up the red and yellow bell peppers in one large hand, and the baby held out her hands for the brightly colored vegetables, squealing and babbling. Clark laughed and set the peppers on the counter, out of his disappointed daughter's reach. Undeterred, she leaned over to grab for them, trusting her father to keep her from falling. He caught her with his other hand and pulled her back up against his shoulder. "I know; I know," he told her when she started fussing. "They look just like your toy rings. Maybe Mommy can get them for you," he added hopefully as Lois Lane walked into the kitchen, slim and beautiful even in jeans and a short-sleeved top.
"Get what?" she asked and reached up to kiss her husband with an intensity that boded ill for getting dinner fixed any time soon.
"Mmm," he murmured, letting go of Laura with one hand to clasp the back of Lois's head, her dark hair silky against his fingers. He looked a little dazed when she drew back, and he had completely forgotten her question. "What was that for?"
"Just a little preview of what I'm planning for dessert." Her smile was sultry, and she bumped her hip against him; then she turned to their daughter, who was reaching for her, and her smile softened as she stroked the infant's soft cheek. "Hi, sweetie. What was it you wanted me to get?" she asked Clark.
He handed Laura to her; then he took the chicken and onion out of the refrigerator and closed the door. "Her stacking rings," he answered. "She's upset because she wants to play with the peppers, but I'm using them for dinner."
"Let's find your toys," Lois told Laura, bouncing the baby on her hip as they walked out of the kitchen.
At super-speed, Clark deboned the chicken and cut it into chunks while Lois's voice drifted in from the living room. "I don't get it, Clark. The only link we've been able to come up with for those shooting victims—*where* did your rings go, pumpkin?—is that eight of them bought part of Lex's collection, either during the sale of his estate five years ago or in private purchases since—"
"—and," he reminded her, pitching his voice to reach her on the other side of the closed door, "those pieces just happen to be back in Luthor's possession now."
"True, but what does that have to do with the other fifteen victims? I'm starting to wonder if there's really any connection with Lex—oh, there, they are, sweetie. I wonder how they got under there?—or if the whole collection thing's just a coincidence," she concluded, pushing through the swinging door into the kitchen.
The chicken was already sizzling in a pan, and he had finished chopping the bell peppers and onions and was mixing the pineapple juice and vinegar for the sweet-and-sour sauce. Clark glanced over his shoulder to see Lois set Laura on the floor with her colored stacking rings and holder as well as a stuffed bear and ring of plastic keys she had picked up on the way. His wife's thought processes ran on several levels simultaneously, and her ability to keep track of multiple lines of thought never failed to delight and amaze him. "Honestly, honey," he said, "I wouldn't put anything past Luthor. I'm sure there's another connection. We just haven't found it yet … But I'm not gonna give up."
She looked up and corrected him, "*We're* not giving up."
He smiled. Despite a month of intense investigation, they hadn't come up with any other connections to Luthor, and Lois had begun to wonder if Lex really was the link connecting all the murders. But she was supporting him anyway. God, he loved her. "*We're* not," he repeated.
Far below the penthouse atop the quarter-mile high LexCorp tower, the lights of Metropolis brightened as the daylight waned. Lex Luthor watched from the balcony outside his office, his hands crammed in the pockets of his tuxedo slacks, uncharacteristically indifferent to what his posture did to the fit of the elegant tux. When he first lived in the penthouse, he had enjoyed the thought that everyone in the city had to look up to see him. It had been a perfect visual expression of his status in Metropolis.
But now … Now it only emphasized his isolation. He was married, the CEO of a multinational corporation, his former position in the city regained, and yet … he had never felt so alone, so out of control, as if his power were slowly leaching away. For months, leaks and accidents had plagued his schemes, more annoying than ruinous, but since the catastrophe with the Dexter building and the incomplete insurance application, he had been certain someone—probably in his organization—was sabotaging his affairs.
But he couldn't figure out who it was. If Kent hadn't repeatedly proved himself chained by his foolish ethical code, Lex might have suspected him of using his super powers unscrupulously. In lieu of an interfering superhero, Lex had begun to keep an eye on Enrico, his closest aide and the only person in LexCorp with enough knowledge or authority to be an effective saboteur. Briefly, Asabi's name crossed his mind, but he thrust the thought away. His former assistant had proven his loyalty many times over.
"Lex?" He heard his wife's soft voice calling him from inside the penthouse. "Dinner's ready."
Another spectacular dinner by his chef, then the premiere of Aida at the Metropolis Opera. And, if there were any justice in the world, he should be getting successful news about a project that might transform him into the most powerful man in the world. "Coming, Beth," he replied and turned away from the glittering city below.
The blue neon sign in the shop window was lost among the brighter, more colorful lights on the street, but Nick didn't need the sign to find his way to the House of Astrology. He pushed open the familiar door and paused a moment to let the faint odor of incense calm and relax him. It didn't help. His heart still galloped in his chest as it had since his meeting this afternoon with Mr. Gendell.
Ten years of his life, dammit. Ever since his dissertation, he'd been working on a way to transfer knowledge directly from one mind to another, and he was sure he was on the verge of a breakthrough. But if he couldn't figure out a way to convince Gendell he was making progress, he'd have to abandon his dream of helping the slow learners, the math phobic, and the learning disabled know the things that came so easily to him and others like him.
God, it wasn't fair. People who worked on better, faster ways of killing other people didn't seem to have trouble getting funding. Why couldn't some of that river of cash be used to support research that would *improve* the human condition?
Nick bit his lip. Coming here was ludicrous. What did he expect Asabi to do? Wave a magic wand over him and suddenly turn all the negative results—those failures that eliminated possibilities and dead-ends—into positive ones? He had started to turn away when a movement caught his attention.
The Indian mystic suddenly appeared from the back room of the shop as if he had materialized on the spot. Dark hair slicked back, head lowered, hands pressed together reverently, Asabi didn't look like the shrewd businessman he was, yet he had been a good friend to a penniless researcher who could give him nothing in return. Nick had often lingered over a cup of Lap Sang Soo Chang in the tearoom that Asabi had added to his shop the year before. There, he read the more esoteric books in the shop, looking for *any*thing that would give him a clue to how the psychic and physical worlds interrelated.
"Nick, you are troubled," Asabi greeted him. "Your research does not go well?"
No matter how many times Nick told himself that the older man was just reading his body language and making some calculated guesses—maybe he really *did* need to get a life besides his work—Asabi's comments always sent a shiver down his spine. "No worse than usual. But Mr. Gendell wants evidence—tomorrow—that this knowledge transfer is even possible or that'll be the end of the funding." He shook his head despairingly and raked one hand through his light brown hair. "It's over. Everything I've worked for."
"But you have only to show him what you've done."
"A transfer that lasts less than a second? Too short a time to measure or even to prove that it really happened? That isn't evidence."
The mystic looked at him for a long moment. "Tomorrow, you need only to give evidence that such a transfer *can* occur?"
"'Only,'" Nick repeated with heavy irony. "I have a better chance of winning the lottery."
Asabi walked over to a circular shelf and picked up a small wooden box. "You are passing the beam through a ruby, are you not?"
He opened the box to reveal a white crystal in the shape of a pyramid. "Try passing the beam through the Zelig stone."
For the first time since he entered the shop, Nick felt a flicker of hope. "What?"
"The Zelig stone will not transfer information from one mind to another as you desire," Asabi explained in his soft Indian accent, "but it *will* prove to your Mr. Gendell that transferences are possible."
"How? What does it do?"
Nick reached for the stone, but the mystic pulled it away, and when he replied, he ignored the younger man's question. "Nick, this stone is powerful, even dangerous. Do not allow another person to touch it. Install it in your machine in the place of the ruby and try the experiment on your lab animals. When your Mr. Gendell has seen and approved your work and you are alone again, remove the stone and bring it back to me." He closed the box. "Do you understand? If you try to use the stone in any other way, it could destroy you. But it will grant you the time you need to develop your own process."
Nick stared at the box, torn between curiosity and horror. "What does it *do*?" he repeated.
Asabi looked down at the box in his hand. "It will transfer the consciousness—the soul—of one being into another's body. Used correctly, it will be enough to prove to your Mr. Gendell that such a transfer is possible."
Nick looked into those unfathomable dark eyes. Was his life's work worth the risk? He reached for the wooden box.
Lois walked away from Laura, expecting the infant to play with her toys or crawl off to explore the mysteries of the kitchen cabinets. Instead, Laura's lower lip thrust out, and she began to cry and crawl after her mother. Lois stopped and looked back at her daughter, then turned to Clark, frustration evident in her coffee-dark eyes. "I don't know what I should do. I want to pick her up, but the books say I shouldn't because it'll teach her that she can get what she wants by crying, and she'll grow up to be spoiled and egocentric. But if I don't, then she'll learn that her opinion doesn't matter, and that'll make her insecure and depressed. And if I pick her up sometimes and don't other times, that'll teach her that there's no consistency in her world, and she'll never be able to trust people when she grows up." She plopped down on one of the kitchen chairs. "Clark, there's no way to win."
He had already set down the sauce and was wiping his hands, but at that he gently grasped Lois's shoulders and pitched his voice to be heard above Laura's wails. "Honey, you're *not* going to ruin Laura's character by picking her up—or by letting her cry—no matter what some child psychologist says. You love her, and you're trying to do what's best for her. Trust yourself." He pressed a kiss on her mouth, then bent down to pick up their screaming child—who had pulled herself up to stand by grabbing his jean-clad leg. At his touch, her tears miraculously vanished. "We've both been so busy this week that we've hardly had time to do more than drop her off or pick her up at the Planet's child care center. I'm sure she feels it." He cradled Laura in his arms and lifted her, so he could blow a raspberry against her bare tummy where her shirt had ridden up. As she shrieked with laughter at the ticklish feeling and funny noise, he lifted his head and finished, "I know I do."
Lois smiled and stroked Laura's soft hair. "Child-rearing wisdom from Dr. Clark. At least she won't grow up feeling unwanted or unloved." She looked at the food on the counter. "So, what's with your Hawaiian kick?"
"Yeah. Sweet and sour twice in the last month. D'you want me to do something with this?"
At his lack of response, she looked up to see him listening to something beyond her hearing. "What now?" she sighed.
"A fire." He handed Laura to her and started for the living room. At the door, he hesitated and turned back. "Add the chicken broth and vegetables to the chicken; when they're tender, add the sauce and pineapple and start some rice. Stir constantly," Clark called over his shoulder and pushed through the door, but when he emerged on the other side, it was Superman whose super-speed exit rattled the windows.
"What are you working on, Chris?" asked Owen Preece, the director of the LexCorp Information Technology department.
Chris Trifyllis glanced at the clock in the corner of his monitor. He worked a late shift, eleven in the morning till eight at night, and sometimes he forgot when quitting time was for the rest of the staff. "The Dexter project. But I want to check the firewalls on that encrypted directory before I start on it."
He held his breath, watching for any suspicion in Preece's expression, but his supervisor simply said, "If you need anything, I'll be in my office finishing a report before I go home."
Preece nodded and left the cubicle, while Chris logged onto the network with his administrator's code. The firewalls Mr. Luthor had asked him to erect after that reporter had hacked into the system were still in place, still untouched. He hadn't really expected otherwise. It would take a hacker with the patience and skill of his younger brother, Alex, to find a way around the new safeguards—but even then, the hacker would have to be incredibly lucky to find the keys to the double-encrypted files. Of course, *he* already had the key to the second level of encryption.
Chris glanced at the clock on his screen. Checking the system hadn't taken as long as he'd expected. There was still some time to indulge his curiosity before he needed to start on the project he'd mentioned to Preece. He exited the network and opened a hidden directory on his own computer, where he had placed a copy of the encrypted files when he was adding the second level of encryption. He stared at the information on his screen. He had already run the most common algorithms on the files, using strings of passwords based on the other codes he used at LexCorp, but the files remained stubbornly closed.
He sighed. He really didn't have a hacker's mentality, the obsessiveness that counted no cost and refused to give up until the problem was solved. Alex, however, had those qualities in abundance. Alex had also just been released from prison after serving eight months of a two-year term for breaking into the financial arm of Bob Fences' old corporation and inserting a dummy program that paid him a fifty-cent royalty for each program the corporation sold. He had collected nearly $100,000 before someone stumbled onto his theft.
Chris didn't have the time to put into decoding the files, but he wanted to know what was important enough to warrant this kind of security. He copied them onto his zip drive and wiped them from his hard-drive, then added an extra file that contained lists of LexCorp's codes and passwords. Logging back onto the network, he tucked the zip disk into an anti-static bag and stuck it in his pocket behind his pocket protector. Alex would probably love the challenge.
*** Clark zoomed back into the living room and spun into his jeans and flannel shirt. When he entered the kitchen, the sweet-and-sour chicken was burning onto the bottom of the pan, and the rice was boiling over while Lois bounced and talked to their smiling daughter, whose face, however, still showed traces of tearstains. Laura must not have liked being put down while Lois worked on the meal he'd started.
He rescued dinner and set the table at super speed, then took Laura and handed Lois a glass of wine. "Sit," he ordered, placing the baby in her high chair and turning to serve his wife as if he were a waiter at an expensive restaurant.
Lois gradually lost that frazzled feeling as she leaned back in her chair and sipped her wine. Clark sat down next to her, then put a bib on Laura, handed her a baby spoon and locked the bowl of warm rice cereal and applesauce onto her tray. She scooped up some cereal, but her overhand grip dumped most of the food down her chin when she lifted it to her mouth. However, she was delighted by the attempt, and she laughed and slapped her hands on the tray, spattering fruit and cereal everywhere.
Squinting against flying food, Clark used an extra spoon to slip in a small bite of rice and applesauce into his daughter's mouth, then turned and looked at his wife. "Better?" he asked.
"Yeah," she agreed, leaning her head on his shoulder. "How did it go?" she continued, giving their little flying signal.
"Okay. A couple of people were trapped in an apartment building that was on fire, but I got them out."
"Good." It was nice to know that he wasn't disrupting their evenings for every bank alarm or—or *buffalo stampede* that he heard, she thought, remembering the nightmare she'd had when they first discussed having children. Superman had scaled back a lot, but she was still responsible for most of the childcare, just as she had feared. Only … once Laura was born, the responsibility didn't seem burdensome or frightening. Most of the time, Lois enjoyed it.
Except when Clark's Superman duties overwhelmed his responsibilities as husband and father and journalist—as they had done this past week. After a few days of what felt like single parenthood, Lois started to get tired and cranky, and she yearned to be the one who flew away at a moment's notice to do something brave or heroic. Sort of like tonight, she admitted.
But Clark was obviously trying to make up for his absences this week by taking care of Laura and having an adult conversation with his wife. He didn't realize that that only made her feel guilty for resenting his superhero activities when he was trying so hard to be here for her and Laura without neglecting his responsibilities as Superman. She sighed as Clark's hand slid up her denim-clad thigh. Of course, if *that* was his idea of making up for his absences, she could live with guilt … and she still had those plans for dessert tonight …
By the time dinner was over, Laura's soft cocoa-brown hair was stiff with dried cereal, and it was going to take a soapy scouring pad—or super powers—to clean her high chair. Clark carefully lifted her out of her chair and held her at arms' length. "I think someone's ready for a bath," he told her, but she ignored him and chewed on her applesauce-and-cereal-encrusted fist.
Lois laughed and opened the door for them to pass through. "I'll get the tub," she said, referring to the baby bathtub she used every day.
"Uh, honey—" He sounded doubtful. "I don't think I can get her cleaned in that—not with all the food in her hair."
"Oh. Okay … you want me to bathe her?"
"No. But maybe I can lay her down in the bathtub and let her soak."
"Okay." It made sense, but Lois felt a little pang at the thought. Faster than she'd ever dreamed, her baby was leaving infancy behind. Lois put three inches of warm water in the bathtub and collected the soap, a soft wash cloth, and a couple of fluffy towels while Clark struggled to undress Laura. Then, as he knelt beside the tub and soaped their wiggling child, she said, "I don't understand how I feel sometimes. It's like I want Laura to be a baby forever … but at the same time, I want her to hurry and grow up."
"After Mxyzptlk's visit a few months ago, I wouldn't mind her staying a baby for a while. But I have to admit," he added, smiling over his shoulder at her, "that I love the way she's starting to look at me like … like I can do *any*thing."
Lois looked puzzled. "But, Clark, you get that kind of look every time Superman shows up."
He shrugged as he scooped up handfuls of water and rinsed Laura's hair. "Yeah, but … that's for Superman. Laura looks at me that way because I'm her daddy." When Lois didn't respond, he added, "Pretty sappy, huh?"
"No." Her fingertips traced his jawline. "It makes sense. If it wasn't for the kind, caring, honest, *sappy* man under the spandex, there wouldn't be a Superman. There'd be a—a super-powered Lex Luthor or, if we were lucky, a Resplendent Man. But no hero. So Laura *should* think the man inside the tights is wonderful." She brushed her lips over the soft skin behind his ear. "I know I do."
Hands full of slippery, squirming baby, Clark couldn't respond to his wife's words the way he wanted to. "Thank you, honey," he said past the obstruction in his throat. "But you're forgetting. There could be an Ultra Woman, too."
Lois held out a fluffy towel and wrapped it around Laura. "Maybe. But I'd had your example in front of me for two years." She rubbed the terry cloth over her daughter's hair. "Let's get this child of ours to bed, and then we can have a dessert fit for a pair of heroes."
No answer at home. Nick was probably working late again, surprise, surprise. Chris dialed his brother's office number. "Hey, Nico, do you have Alex's new address?" he asked when his brother answered.
"At home. Not here." Nick's voice sounded distracted.
"Huh." Chris frowned. He wanted to get this file out of his possession as quickly as possible. "When are you getting off tonight?"
"I don't know. Late. I'm working on something that needs to be done before tomorrow. Why?"
"Would you be willing to address a package to Alex and put it in the mail?"
"I guess. Will you have it ready to ship?"
"Sure." Chris searched through one of his desk drawers and pulled out a disk mailer. "Stamped and everything. I'll drop it by on my way home."
"Okay," Nick said absently. "See you later."
"'Hand, hand, fingers, thumb. One thumb, one thumb drumming on a drum. One hand, two hands, drumming on a drum. Dum-ditty-dum-ditty-dum-dum-dum,'" Clark chanted to Laura, patting her hands together in rhythm for the 'dum-ditties.' She giggled, turning her head back to grin at him and smacking her hands together enthusiastically.
Lois laughed and shook her head. 'Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb' was Laura's favorite book. "Clark Kent, at this rate, our daughter's first word is going to be dum-dum-dum."
He didn't answer until they finished the book. "Nah," he said, "she'll be saying Da-da before that."
"You wish," Lois said, bumping her hip against his arm. "I bet her first word is Ma-ma."
"Make it worth my while," Clark protested. He grinned and added, "How about an evening of the winner's choice? Whatever and wherever." He raised and lowered his eyebrows in a quick, suggestive expression.
"You're on," Lois said and held out her arms for her daughter. "My turn."
He cuddled the baby closer for a moment, breathing in her clean scent. Looking up, he gave his wife a little half-smile. "I get called away so often that I hate to give her up when I don't have to go anywhere."
Reluctantly, he handed Laura to Lois, but she stopped him when he started to get out of the rocker. "No, don't get up." She perched on his lap, sitting across his thighs and leaning against his chest. One of his arms slid around her, and he smoothed Laura's soft hair while Lois adjusted her clothes.
Clark felt both his wife and daughter relax against him as Laura started nursing, and his arms tightened around them. He dropped a kiss on Lois's forehead, grateful that she understood his need for closeness, but he didn't say anything, knowing from long experience that the sound of his voice would keep Laura from settling into sleep. Instead, he rocked the chair and stroked his girls' arms in slow, circular patterns, smiling at Laura's intense focus on Lois's face and listening to the soft lullaby his wife was crooning.
After Lois switched Laura to the other side, the baby's eyes began to droop closed, and Lois lowered her voice to a hum. A few minutes later, the rhythmic movement of Laura's jaws slowed, closing and relaxing at greater and greater intervals, until finally her mouth dropped open. "She looks so little and helpless like this," Lois said softly. "It's hard to imagine that she's going to have powers like yours some day."
Clark cupped the back of the baby's head in one large hand. She had grown a lot in the past nine months, but she still seemed so small to him. "I thought you'd decided that Mxyzptlk was the one who gave her super powers—just to add to the confusion."
She hesitated, stroking Laura's cheek with her thumb. "I did—mostly because she was flying pretty early. Didn't you tell me you didn't fly until you were out of high school?" At his nod, she continued, "So that didn't seem right … to have a half-Kryptonian more powerful than a full one. But then when I thought about it, Mix-it-up seemed too … literal … to think of giving her super powers when all he was doing was turning her into a teenager."
"Maybe he sped up her getting super powers like he did everything else," Clark suggested, his breath soft against her cheek. "Or maybe he figured super powers were part of being Superman's daughter and gave them to her."
"Maybe." Lois sighed and straightened her clothes. "But just in case, I'd better get my bluff in early."
"Yeah. Get her used to obeying me before she finds out that I can't enforce it. I hope she's inherited your temperament instead of mine."
Clark gently squeezed her shoulder. "Don't you want her to be caring and passionate—"
"—and reckless and demanding and confrontational? No thanks." She looked down at the baby sleeping in her arms, and her mouth curved in a faint smile. "If her personality is anything like mine, she and I can look forward to years of butting heads. And don't tell me you'll be there to back me up," she said, stopping Clark as he was about to say just that. "She'll have you wrapped around her little finger before she's old enough to go to school, and then I'll have to hold out against both of you."
She turned back and sternly told him, "And don't you dare teach her that puppy-eyed look."
"No, honey," he said, trying to change his puppy-eyed look to one of contrition.
"Good." The twinkle in her eyes let him know she was teasing.
"Now that she's ready for bed, how about that dessert?" he asked, breathing soft kisses alongside her neck.
"That sounds—oh, right there—like a good idea," Lois said, tilting her head away to expose more of her neck to his mouth. "Why don't you put Laura to bed while I … get dessert ready?"
"See you at softball practice tomorrow," Chris said, starting toward the door of Nick's lab. Halfway there, he paused and added, "You won't forget the package, will you, Nico? I'd really like Alex to take a look at it as soon as he can."
"What's so important?" Nick emerged from his preoccupation in response to the intensity in his brother's voice.
Chris shrugged and shoved his glasses further up his nose, his ponytail bobbing as he ducked his head. "Something from work that I'm … kinda worried about." He hesitated. "It's probably nothing. But I'd like to know for sure."
"Okay. I'll take care of it." Nick nodded, returning to the delicate disassembly of his cognitive facilitator. He didn't notice when the door closed behind Chris.
"No, Lex, don't! Laura!"
Clark jerked awake, Lois's desperate cry still echoing in his ears. His heart thundering in his chest, his face damp with sweat, he turned over to find Lois sleeping peacefully beside him. It had been a dream, he thought, relieved. The tension seeped from his muscles, and he brushed a kiss across her forehead and lay back, looking through the wall into the next room to make sure Laura was okay.
She had uncovered herself and was making distressed little sounds in her sleep, so he eased out of bed and padded barefoot to her room. She quieted when he pulled the blanket over her and gently rubbed her back. "Daddy loves you, sweetie," he murmured. "I won't let anything hurt you."
A promise like that was easier to make than to keep, even for Superman. Despite the successful conclusion to the child neglect charges brought against them last fall, Clark was still troubled by the unanswered questions in the case and by fears of losing his little girl. Sometimes, especially after a nightmare like he'd just had, he was certain that Lex Luthor had been behind the charges, that the whole thing had been an attempt to get control of "Superman's daughter." But that meant that *this* Luthor was no clone, that he was the man who knew Clark Kent was Superman. However, eighteen months of investigating had failed to turn up a shred of evidence to refute Luthor's story that a clone had impersonated him, and Clark had begun to doubt his instincts … until a month ago, when Dr. Klein finally decoded part of the files Clark had copied from the LexCorp network. The decoded sections had contained enough information to convince even Lois (who had tried to view Luthor's story impartially) that he had lied, that there had been no clone.
And that meant that the man living openly in Metropolis knew Superman's real identity.
For a year and a half, they had been lucky that Luthor hadn't bothered them—unless, of course, *he* was the one who instigated those child neglect charges six months ago. But it would be criminally foolish to expect him to continue to ignore the opportunity to strike at his enemy's weakest point or to quit trying to possess something he wanted—which meant that Lois and Laura were at risk as long as he was a free man.
Just the thought of danger to them made Clark so tense that he could hardly breathe. He wanted to fly over Metropolis and make sure no danger threatened; he wanted to see if Dr. Klein had decoded some hard evidence of Luthor's lie from the LexCorp files; he wanted to go through the backgrounds of the shooting victims and find a connection with Luthor; he wanted to take his wife and daughter someplace safe from any threat—
—and he couldn't do any of it. At least, not in the middle of the night.
Control, he thought. He'd had a lifetime of practice controlling himself. He took a deep breath and patted Laura's thickly padded bottom.
"What is it, Clark?" Lois asked, resting a hand on his bare shoulder. "Is Laura okay?"
He let out his breath in a soft sigh. "Yeah. She kicked her covers off, and she was getting restless, so I covered her up, and she went back to sleep."
Lois slid her arms around his waist and leaned her cheek between his shoulders. "Do you remember that first week after we moved her into this room? I'd wake up in the middle of the night and you'd be gone. Then I'd find you in here, watching her, just making sure she was still breathing."
He turned in her arms and buried his face against her hair. "I know. I worry too much."
"Because you care so much," she told him fiercely. "What set it off tonight?"
He laughed softly, without amusement. He didn't know why he ever tried to keep anything from Lois; she always found it out. "A dream. About Luthor."
She shuddered. "Ugh." But her hands were already sliding over his hips, pulling his body closer to hers, and her voice was low and seductive. "If you'll come back to bed, I can give you something really good to think about instead."
One arm around her back, he bent to slip the other arm behind her knees and lift her into his arms. "I love you, Lois," he whispered, kissing her as he carried her back to their bedroom.
"Are you sure he'll try the process with the Zelig stone?" Lex Luthor asked. He tipped back in his leather chair, his feet on the beautifully finished oak desk, and rubbed the inside corners of his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. The opera had gone on longer than he had expected, and it was late.
Asabi's voice was as distinctive over the phone as in person. "His continued funding, the research he has made his life work … all of this rides on tomorrow's demonstration. He will use the stone."
"Good. Let me know the results when he brings the stone back to you."
Lex hung up the phone and swiveled around to look down at the lights of Metropolis. It might have been easier to entice this little scientist away from Gendell with a promise of long-term funding, but Lex hated to spend the money or reveal his interest in the process before it was proven to work. Tomorrow—if Asabi brought word that the machine worked—would be time enough to step in as the project's financial savior.
The problem with the Zelig stone, he had long known, was that it was too personal. You had to clasp the stone against the hand of the intended victim in order to effect a transfer. But with this little machine amplifying and focusing the stone's power … portable, effective at a distance. Even a wary Superman wouldn't be invulnerable to such a transfer.
END ACT 1
The morning light coming through the lab window made Nick's eyes sting and he rubbed them wearily. The Zelig stone wasn't the same size as the ruby he had been using, and fitting it into the small space and recalibrating his equipment had taken most of the night. But he was too keyed up and worried to sleep until he knew whether it worked or not.
But what if it worked? How could he use something that transferred a personality from one body to another to convince Grant Gendell that his information transfer process was possible?
He was still puzzling over that as he shut the case on the betacam-sized machine and tightened the screws that held it closed, then went to get his test subjects. The two dogs he'd rescued from the pound started barking when he opened their cages, and Jolly shoved his muzzle into Nick's hand while Lucky strained against his lead, head down, sniffing the lab floor. He tethered them side by side along one wall and gave each of them a doggie treat. After gulping down the treat, the dogs sat down, wagging their tails, watching hopefully for another.
Nick squatted beside Jolly, placed his hand on the dog's head, and said, "Roll over, boy." Jolly promptly lay down and rolled over, then looked up, a panting, doggie-smile on his face as he waited for his treat. "Good boy," Nick told him, stroking his head and feeding him another dog biscuit.
But when he put his hand on Lucky's head and told him to roll over, the dog sat still, looking up at him with an uncomprehending, if adoring, expression. Nick tried again, and Lucky barked and jumped up on him. He gave the dog's head an absent caress and walked over to the table where he entered the results as he had every day for a year.
Hesitantly, Nick picked up the machine he called his 'cognitive facilitator' and switched on the power. Aiming through a camcorder-like eyepiece, he centered the dogs in the frame and focused the lens, then pressed the trigger. A white light, like an intense camera flash, blazed from the opening at one end of the machine, capturing both dogs in one frozen, startled moment. When the light shut off, the dogs were still for a moment.
Nick put down the cognitive facilitator and went over to the dogs, who had begun to whine and sniff each other. He squatted beside Jolly and petted him, then told him to roll over. The dog just stared at him, then turned away to sniff Lucky. Nick tried again, but this time with Lucky, who had shoved a wet nose into his hand. After a moment of hesitation, the dog lay down and rolled over.
For an instant, Nick stared in disbelief. "Ohmigod," he whispered, then flung his arms around Lucky and hugged him, burying his face in the dog's thick coat.
In the mirror, Clark watched approvingly as Lois extended one long, slim leg while she drew up her off-black hose. She was wearing a lacy bra and panties that tempted him to forget they were getting ready for work. "You know," he said, "it's a good thing I have super willpower, or we might be *really* late this morning."
Lois laughed and gave a little shimmy as she pulled the panty hose over her hips. "Yes, but if you were shaving like you're supposed to be doing instead of watching me get dressed—" she sashayed into the bathroom and peeked over Clark's bare shoulder at his reflection— "you wouldn't have to exercise any of that willpower."
He grinned. "Spoilsport." Then he covered her hand with his and, with a murmured, "Watch out," concentrated on his reflection. His gaze followed an invisible path over his jaw and chin, and everywhere he looked, his dark stubble vanished.
For a second, a faint glimmer of red was visible in his clear brown eyes, but that was the only sign that he was using his heat vision. "Done?" she asked.
"Yep. Smooth as Laura's bottom," he boasted, stroking his jaw. "Wanna feel?"
"I better not. I don't want to put too much of a strain on your willpower." She grinned saucily and patted his towel-covered rear. "Now, scoot. I need the mirror."
Clark obligingly exchanged places with his wife, who opened her makeup case and began to 'put her face on.' "Now *that*," he said, his willpower slipping a little as he bent down and pressed a kiss on the curve between her shoulder and neck, "is a complete waste of time."
"What is?" she asked, a tiny frown creasing between her brows.
"You trying to make yourself more beautiful." His lips brushed up the side of her neck. "You can't get better than perfect."
Lois reached back, her hand curving behind his neck. "I thought guys used their best lines *before* they were married." Her voice was soft and loving.
His arms slid around her slender waist, and he pulled her back against his body. "We spacemen have a romantic reputation to maintain."
Her smile was impish. "I like your maintenance program. *But* … "
He sighed and let go of her. "We have to go to work. I know." Clark started to leave the bathroom, then hesitated and turned back. "I don't suppose you feel like playing hooky today."
She sighed, too, the rise and fall of her breasts under the dark lace of her bra distracting him. "I can't, honey. I have an eight-thirty interview with one of the school board members, and it's taken me two weeks to set it up, so I don't dare miss it." She glanced at her watch. "Speaking of which … !"
"Okay, okay. I'll start breakfast," he promised, then cocked his head, listening for a moment. "Laura's bored with being in her crib, too. Sounds like a job for … " He spun in a whirlwind blur, and when he came to a stop, he was wearing dress slacks and a shirt and tie. With a flourish he put on his glasses and added, "Super-Dad."
Lois threw a towel at him, and he laughed and jogged down the hallway.
"He said he was going to check the security on those files," Owen Preece said, standing stiffly in front of Lex Luthor's desk.
Luthor flipped through a couple of papers on his desktop while the Information Technology director shifted from one foot to another. At length, the millionaire looked up. "If you check his computer, can you tell whether he's gotten into those files?"
"Yeah, probably, but … "
"Why don't you just ask him?"
Luthor settled back in his chair, a faint, condescending smile on his face. "I was orphaned at fourteen and began with nothing, yet I became the third richest man in the world, and even now I employ thousands of workers in this city alone. That I've managed to accomplish so much is due in large part to my skill at character assessment. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Owen felt a flush burning the tips of his ears, and he muttered, "I'll check his workstation."
"Good. Is he at work now?"
"No. He doesn't come in till eleven."
Luthor glanced at his watch. "Then you have several hours. I trust that will be sufficient time."
It didn't take the IT director long to figure out what the correct response was. "I'll make sure it is."
The blinding white light flashed, and once more the dogs sat as if they had fallen asleep in place. But this time, instead of whining, they stood up after a moment and shook themselves vigorously. When Nick reached them, they had sat down again, panting, tongues lolling from the sides of their mouths.
He hesitated, then held out his hand to both animals. Jolly shoved his muzzle against the palm of Nick's hand, while Lucky sniffed it briefly, then dropped his head to sniff Nick's shoes. His heart beating uncomfortably fast, Nick began, "Roll—" but his voice broke and he started again, "Roll over, boy." As before, Lucky ignored him, but Jolly immediately lay down and rolled onto his back and over to the other side.
On his knees, his arms around Lucky's and Jolly's furry bodies, Nick grappled with the implications of what had just happened. He had forgotten about Gendell's visit at one-thirty. He had forgotten that he had had no sleep. That no longer mattered. He was already formulating a series of experiments to test the parameters of this unbelievable process.
Lois nearly ran down the ramp into the Daily Planet bullpen, racing back to her computer to start writing up the interview she'd just had with one of the more outspoken school board members. "Hi, Clark!" she called as she slid into her chair, tossing her purse into an empty drawer and accessing the word processing program from the network.
He stopped behind her and reached around with a fresh cup of coffee. "Hi, honey. Good interview?"
"Absolutely," she told him, flipping through her notebook to find the right page. "It'll be perfect with the superintendent's press conference this afternoon on the new school improvement initiative." She finally noticed the coffee next to her keyboard, and she smiled and tipped her head back to look at her husband. "Thanks."
Clark brushed a kiss across her nose. "You're welcome," he said and started back to his desk.
He was halfway there when her voice stopped him. "Honey?"
"Yes?" He turned back to face her.
Lois pointed to the appointment reminder that had popped up on her screen. "You're still going to take Laura to her well-child check this morning, aren't you?"
He smiled. "Ten o'clock. I haven't forgotten."
"Good. That'll give me a chance to finish this story before the press conference."
"Or before Perry finds something new to send us out on," Clark added, gesturing toward the editor's office with his head as he sat down in front of his computer.
Doctors' offices run on schedules, but a superhero's life doesn't. Clark was clearing away his work before he went to the childcare center to get Laura when a commotion around the TV sets drew his attention. Frowning, he shoved his chair back and started around his desk.
Lois looked up. "What's—?" she began, but the expression on his face told her that it was a Superman thing, and she immediately got up and followed him.
"—don't know what's happening. The jet took off normally, but now it appears to have turned around and be headed back in," the LNN field reporter said.
The anchor cut in, his normally calm, deep voice hurried and tight with stress. "We've just received word from the control tower. The pilot has reported that the jet has lost both engines, and he is attempting to return to the landing field. Flight 1124 to London is carrying 346 passengers, among them the newest singing sensation from England … "
Lois looked away to see what Clark was doing, but all she saw was the door to the stairs swinging shut. She smiled. Once again, he was stepping in to wrest life from tragedy. Daydreaming about the extraordinary man she had married, she startled when someone touched her arm.
"Lois?" Jimmy Olsen asked. "There's an alert on your computer."
"Thanks, Jimmy." She glanced at her watch automatically—and suddenly realized what the alert was. Damn! She hurried back to her desk and, grabbing her purse, started up the ramp to the elevator.
"Lois!" Perry White called. "Where're you goin'? There's an airliner crash to cover."
"Clark's already on it, Perry," she said, jabbing the elevator button. "I have to take Laura to a doctor's appointment." She still hadn't finished that school board article, either. She punched the down button impatiently, muttering, "So he didn't forget. A lotta good that did."
After the blaze of white light, the animals were still again—but for longer this time. Nick watched them worriedly; when they hadn't moved for over five minutes, he knelt beside them, feeling for their heartbeat and breathing. They might have been test animals, but he couldn't help regarding them like pets.
At his touch, Jolly opened his eyes and staggered to his feet. He swayed, and the hair raised on his back. His lips drew back, and an unearthly yowl tore from his throat. Nick sank back on his heels. The sound was not a howl, more akin to the sound of fighting tomcats, but with a note of terror that lifted the hair on the back of the man's neck.
He turned to the cat lying at Jolly's side. The feline's eyes opened and focused beseechingly on Nick's face as the cat shoved her muzzle into his hand. "Good boy, Jolly," he whispered, stroking the cat's soft coat.
If it weren't for the hassle of rearranging her work schedule in order to do something that Clark was supposed to take care of, Lois would have enjoyed taking Laura to her nine-month well-baby check. There was a certain satisfaction in being able to show off her bright, beautiful, healthy child, particularly when Laura was behaving like an angel while the other children in the waiting room were fussing, crying, or throwing tantrums. Despite her irritation with Clark's inconvenient disappearance, Lois found herself smiling as she bundled her daughter into the car seat in the back seat of the Jeep.
Nearby, she heard the swooshing sound of her husband's approach, and she deliberately finished buckling Laura in place before she turned to face him.
"How'd it go?" he asked, standing in his usual Superman pose, arms crossed, legs planted apart like young oaks, his cape lifting gently in the breeze.
At the familiar voice, Laura began to kick and squirm, squealing and holding out her arms for her daddy.
"Oops," he added, glancing around to see if anyone had noticed her reaction.
Lois raised her eyebrows. After a week of caring for Laura by herself and repeatedly making excuses to explain Clark's absence to an irritated, skeptical editor, she felt an unworthy sense of glee at her husband's discomfiture. "You'd better hope you're not in the Suit when she pops out with 'da-da' the first time." His thunderstruck expression told her he had never considered the possibility. She turned away and tossed the diaper bag into the back seat of the Jeep. "Did you need something?" she asked, backing out of the vehicle and closing the door.
He looked like a puppy that had been spanked and didn't know why. "I just … wondered how her checkup went."
"Fine." He flinched from her abruptness, and she softened a little and added, "She's perfectly healthy, perfectly beautiful, perfectly behaved, and developing perfectly."
Clark nodded, a tentative smile touching his mouth. "Good. I'll see you at work, then." Laura was still trying to reach for him, babbling with delight, but now Lois heard frustration rising in her voice, too. "Umm, maybe we should talk about this." He tipped his head toward the baby.
Opening the driver's door, Lois nodded. "I think you're right. See you at work."
"He had a copy of the secured files in a hidden directory on his computer, but he deleted it last night." Preece's voice on the phone sounded both relieved and anxious. "I don't know if he took it with him, but if he did, it was probably on a zip drive disk because of the size."
Lex paused, his black eyes hooded. Trifyllis was a gifted systems manager, the best he'd ever employed. Why couldn't the young man have kept his nose out of those files? Waste annoyed Lex Luthor, and having anticipated this possibility didn't make the necessary decision any more palatable. "Thank you, Owen." He cut the connection and dialed another number. "Enrico, I need to see you at once. I have a job for you."
Lois had barely turned off the ignition before Clark was opening the back door and taking Laura out of her car seat. At least he was in street clothes this time. Not that that made any difference to Laura, who was again laughing and squirming to get to her father.
Glasses, no glasses, hair slicked back, hair tumbled over his forehead, jeans, dress suit, blue spandex—Laura recognized Clark no matter what he looked like. Lois sighed. Of course, he had never *tried* to make his daughter believe he was two different people.
He effortlessly carried the baby and diaper bag in one arm and started to put his other arm around Lois's waist, but her stiff posture kept him at a distance. He focused on Laura as they walked across the parking garage, talking to her and listening to her babbling sounds as if he understood them perfectly. But once the doors of the elevator slid shut, he reached over to pull out the 'stop' button on the control panel and said, "Lois, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to dump that in your lap, especially when you were working on a story."
If he had said one word to excuse himself, to remind her that over three hundred lives had depended on his 'running off,' Lois would have been forced to excuse him, but the anger would have quietly hardened in her heart. But he didn't make that mistake, and she felt her throat tighten when she looked into his unhappy brown eyes. "Oh, Clark," she sighed, placing her hand on the side of his arm. "It's been a long week, and I'm tired."
"I know, honey." He bent down and brushed a kiss across her mouth. "I'm sorry."
Lois carefully untangled Laura's clutching fingers from her hair. She really couldn't stay angry with him for long, and the resentment settled down, as it had done last night when he took over dinner and took care of Laura. "How'd it go at the airport?"
"I brought the jet in okay, but I think there was some sabotage involved in the engine failure. I'll write it up as soon as I drop off Laura." He released the 'stop' button, and the elevator jerked upward and stopped on the first floor.
"Something Lane and Kent should look into?" she asked as he stepped off the elevator.
He nodded. "I think so. After we finish that school improvement story."
*** "Dr. Trifyllis, I'm a busy man. I assume there is a point to these animal tricks?" Grant Gendell said, shifting restlessly in the folding chair and looking around the lab.
Nick bit back a caustic, 'No, I'm rehearsing for a new career as an animal trainer,' and instead responded, "I wanted to show you that one dog knows a trick that the other doesn't."
The billionaire harumphed briefly and settled back in his chair.
Surprisingly, when Gendell had arrived at one-thirty, Nick had forgotten about the appointment that had been the center of his thoughts a day earlier. In the thirty seconds before Gendell and one of his assistants entered the lab, Nick came up with a plan for a demonstration, but the initial responses hadn't been promising so far.
He picked up the cognitive facilitator and placed it on his shoulder like a video camera, focusing it until only the two dogs filled the viewpiece. The man with Gendell was talking in an undertone, but Nick ignored it. The transference didn't require silence or concentration, so he didn't need to worry about distractions.
Once again the white light flashed, capturing the dogs and freezing them in position, and startling his audience, who reflexively covered their eyes. Once again, the dogs stood dazed after the light released them, then began to whine in distress. Nick set his device down and went to the dogs, petting them and reassuring them.
He turned back and looked at Gendell and the "suit" with him. "Before, this dog—" he indicated Lucky— "didn't know how to roll over on command. But now … " Petting "Lucky's" head, Nick was reassured when the dog thrust his nose against his palm, and he ordered, "Roll over, boy."
It was a good thing, Nick reflected, that Jolly was obedient enough to carry out the order even when he had just been unceremoniously thrust into another body. With the quick response of a circus animal, he dropped to the ground and rolled over, then staggered to his feet and shook himself vigorously.
Gendell was on his feet. "But that's—" He shook his head, looking from one animal to the other. "He didn't know that command a few minutes ago."
"That's right," Nick said.
The billionaire studied the animals for a moment. "When can you start tests with humans?"
"I can't," Nick blurted out.
"Because … " Whether it cost him Gendell's support or not, Nick couldn't let this process be used on people. "Because it doesn't *copy* information from one mind to another. It *transfers* it."
Gendell frowned. "Transfers? What are you saying?"
"It—it removes the information from the source mind when it transfers it to the target."
"So this dog—" Gendell pointed to "Jolly."
"Doesn't know how to roll over any more. That's right," Nick said. "I can't risk using it on people until I can get past that. Until I can actually make a copy of the information … " Or the personality, Nick suddenly realized. This Zelig stone might actually be the means of achieving his dream.
Gendell left with a promise to renew his funding for another three years, and Nick immediately dialed a familiar number. "Hello, Asabi?" he began. "About that Zelig stone … "
Lois hurried across the grassy park to the bench where Clark sat in the sunshine, a couple of brown paper bags beside him. He had removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, and he was soaking up the sunlight with an almost greedy pleasure, his face upturned, his eyes closed. "Hi, honey," he said when she got within a few feet of the bench. "Was Laura glad to see you?"
She shook her head with some amusement. Long ago, she had gotten used to not being able to sneak up on her husband. Even without his x-ray vision, he was able to identify her by sound and probably smell, which was still a disconcerting thought. "Yeah, but guess what? She started to cry when I left, but by the time I reached the door, she'd already stopped."
He took a deep breath and, letting it out in a sigh, opened his eyes and smiled. "Good. Maybe we're getting past that separation anxiety stage."
Lois sat beside him and automatically looked into the nearest lunch sack. "I hope so. Which one is mine?"
Clark indicated the sack she had been rooting through. "Chicken salad sandwich with dill on sourdough, split-pea soup with ginger, apple slices, and a cream soda."
"Ooh, sounds good. What've you got? No, let me guess. A cheeseburger deluxe with bacon and mushrooms, large fries, and a chocolate shake."
He grinned. "And you say I'm the one with a super nose."
She elbowed him in the ribs. "*That* was just knowing my husband." He raised his eyebrows, and she laughed and added, "Well, I caught a whiff of fries, and I know what you order when you go to a burger joint."
"So that's how your leaps of logic work." He gave her a lingering kiss, then dug into his sack for his burger while she pulled out her still-warm soup and a spoon.
"So what are we going to do about Laura?"
He took a healthy bite of the grilled sandwich. "What about her?"
"Clark." Even a husband like hers could be obtuse at times, so she patiently explained, "You saw what happened today. She recognizes you no matter what you look like, and I'm afraid that's going to be a real problem before long."
"Then I'll make sure she doesn't see Superman up close any more."
He was missing the point, she realized. "I'm not sure that'll be enough."
Clark started to take another bite of his burger, then stopped and lowered the sandwich to his lap. "Honey," he said, "could we not discuss this now?"
"But I thought you said you wanted to talk about it."
"I did. I do. But not now. I love Laura heart and soul, but I don't wanna be a parent right now. Or a reporter. Or a superhero." He cupped his hand over her cheek, his fingers sliding into her dark hair. "Right now, I just wanna sit in the sun with my wife and enjoy being with her."
Even if he didn't want to talk about something that she was concerned about, Lois couldn't feel irritated when he just wanted to be with her, and she planted a dill-and-ginger flavored kiss on his mouth. "It's kinda nice not to wonder if we'll have anything to talk about when the kids are gone."
"Kids?" His eyebrows soared. "Is there something you haven't told me?"
Her laughter trilled out. "Metaphorically speaking, of course."
He relaxed and grinned. "Of course." He offered her a piece of bacon, and they spent a relaxing half-hour sampling each other's lunch as they ate their own.
When Nick called Chris at work, a secretary answered and said he had gone home for lunch, so he drove to Chris's little ranch-style house a couple of miles from the LexCorp computer headquarters. As he turned onto the quiet, tree-lined street, Nick noticed a car parked along the empty street a block ahead of him—near Chris's house, in fact. As he got closer, he saw a couple—a dark-haired man with glasses and a petite, dark-haired woman—turn from Chris's front walk onto the sidewalk in front of his house. They got into the car and drove off just before he pulled up in front of his brother's home. For a moment, he thought they were watching him in the rear-view mirrors, but their car sedately rounded the corner, and he dismissed them as religious freaks beating the bushes for converts.
Nick hurried up the walk to the roofed-over porch across the front of the house and poked at the doorbell, again feeling the excitement building within him as he imagined telling Chris about his discovery. He waited for a moment, distracted by the neighbor's yard where beds of miniature iris blazed with jewel-like colors. He was mentally tracing the patterns in the plantings when it occurred to him that Chris should have answered the door by now, and he turned back and gave the doorbell two quick jabs.
Where was Chris? Nick tried the doorknob, which turned easily under his hand, and he poked his head inside to yell, "Hey, Christobel! Get outta the john and answer your door!"
Somewhere, a faucet was dripping. Nick stepped inside and shut the door. If Chris were home, that old, insulting nickname should have provoked *some* response. Maybe he'd gone back to work already, but leaving his front door unlocked was asking for trouble. Nick headed for the kitchen with the vague idea of leaving a note by the phone for his absent-minded brother, when he saw Chris sitting at the kitchen table.
"Hey, y—" he began in the instant before he took in the blood spattered across the table, his brother's head bowed against the wooden surface. "God, Chris!" he choked and lurched forward.
END ACT 2
Lois fought back a yawn and made a tenth tick in the corner of her notepad as the Metropolis Public Schools superintendent began to read from yet another page of notes on the proposed school improvement project. She should have demanded that Perry assign this press conference to someone else—like Ralph, maybe—so she could work with Clark on the question of sabotage in the plane crash that he had averted earlier. But Perry had made some general remarks about prima donnas last week, and she had wanted to show him that she could be a team player, too. She sighed and scribbled a brief note, extracting another point from the mountain of banality it was buried under. Too bad being a team player meant getting stuck with the boring, routine assignments instead of the exciting front-page stuff. She almost wished the building would catch on fire or something, just to jazz things up a bit.
She suddenly heard that thought in isolation: <I almost wish the building would catch on fire or something.> What was she thinking? Oh God, maybe she really was an adrenaline junkie. She hated to think that anything that that Bailey woman from Social Services had said might contain even a grain of truth, but … Was that the real reason she felt disgruntled when Clark took off on a rescue and left her to handle the childcare and housework? Because he was doing "exciting stuff" and she was stuck in a boring routine of changing diapers and washing laundry and cooking meals?
Of course not, Lois told herself. She wasn't that immature. It was normal to feel unhappy that she was having to shoulder most—too much?—of the domestic responsibilities, and she just needed to let Clark know how she felt instead of keeping her feelings inside and blowing up at him. That was all.
But as she jotted down a final note before the question-and-answer part of the press conference began, she wondered.
Nick sat in the living room, face buried in his hands. His eyes burned from the tears that flooded his eyes, and the lump in his throat was so big that it hurt when he tried to swallow. <Oh, God, *Chris*>
The detective, a short black man, came back into the living room. "Mr. Trifyllis?"
He scrubbed the tears away with the heels of his hands, put his glasses on, and looked up. "Yes?"
"Now that I have your statement, you can go, but I want you to stop by the station to meet with a police artist."
It was hard to focus on anything except his little brother. "Artist? Why?"
"So we can get some kind of picture of the couple you saw," the investigator said patiently. "You might have seen the killers. Do you want a ride?"
"What? No, that's okay. I'll stop by." Nick stood up. He started toward the door, then stopped. "What about … ?" His voice trailed off and his head gestured toward the kitchen.
His voice unexpectedly gentle, the detective said, "We'll take care of him."
"Where's Lois?" Perry asked Clark, pausing by the younger man's desk.
Clark looked up from the piece he was writing. He had LAN'd the jet rescue story to Perry and was working on a sidebar on the school improvement initiative to accompany the interview with a school board member that Lois had already written. "At the superintendent's press conference. Why?"
"There's been another shooting." The graying editor handed him a folder.
Clark flipped it open, scanning the address details, then grabbed the phone. "Thanks, Perry," he said, punching in her cell-phone number. "I'll have her meet me there when the press conference is over."
"One curious computer geek out of the way," Enrico O'Reilly announced as he shut the door of Lex Luthor's office.
Lex looked at the end of his cigar and frowned. The days when he considered murder an admission of failure were long behind him, but that didn't mean he appreciated his subordinate's flippancy. "You got away unseen?"
That tiny hesitation before Enrico replied spoke volumes to a man who prided himself on character assessment. "Lindy and I were both disguised."
"Which means you *were* seen. By whom?" Lex asked flatly.
"I dunno," Enrico said, shrugging. "A guy drove up just before we got back to our car, and he parked behind where we'd been."
"Did he get a good look at you?"
"Nah. Not unless he could see like Superman."
Lex froze for an instant. Could it have been Kent? "What did he look like?"
"Glasses, light brown hair, kinda scrawny, maybe late thirties or so." Enrico dismissed the witness.
That certainly wasn't Kent … but something in his memory stirred at that description. "About Trifyllis—"
"One bullet in the back of the head, Boss, no fight, no theft or signs of forced entry. And I stripped the car we used and ditched it in Suicide Slum."
"Not that." Lex gestured impatiently. "Did you find the files he stole?"
"The … files?" Enrico swallowed, then burst out, "He was a computer geek! He had disks scattered all over the house. How much time do you think we had to get in and out without being found out?"
Lex drew furiously on his cigar. "I sent you to do a job, and I expected it to be done right. Find the disk."
His lieutenant seemed to be counting to ten, a muscle flexing in his jaw as he clenched his teeth. "There are thousands of disks in that house, and the police are probably there. How do you expect us to look for a particular file without alerting everyone to the fact that someone's interested in his files? You might as well leave a business card."
Lex took a deep breath and held it. He hated the uncertainty of wondering which of his trusted subordinates was betraying him. It reminded him that things were slipping out of his grasp, and the loss of control made it difficult for him to accept anything except unquestioning obedience. "Look for a zip file disk," he said in a tightly controlled voice. "If you don't know what one looks like, have one of the secretaries show you. Trifyllis won't have as many of them, and you can probably find them fairly quickly."
When Enrico opened his mouth to make another protest or ask another question, Lex cut him off with a furious hand. "Do it!" the millionaire shrieked.
His aide took one look at his expression and fled the room.
In the exercise room in their private apartment, Beth Luthor stepped off the treadmill and switched off the listening device that looked like a set of headphones and a small tape player clipped to her waistband. Another execution, she thought, wearily punching the off button on the treadmill and leaning her forehead against the nearest handrail.
When Lex tried to take the Kents' daughter from them, she had taken the first step to thwart his plans, but the results of her efforts had been uneven at best. All too often, she only discovered something when it was too late—like this latest murder. Yet, if she openly moved against him—say, with the tapes she had of his conversations with Enrico—she wouldn't survive until he came to trial. Whether or not she were also jailed for turning a blind eye to his criminal activities, Lex would make sure that she died for betraying him, and she wasn't brave enough or desperate enough to face his retribution.
There had to be some way to stop him without being openly involved or bringing in the police. If only *she* had some helpers who could do the dirty work for her, some people who had a reason of their own to hate Lex …
"Another shooting?" Lois asked as she pushed through the front door of Chris Trifyllis's small ranch house to join Clark. She glanced at his notes. "What's this? No struggle, nothing stolen, no sign of a break-in, just a single bullet in the back of the head?"
"Like an execution. But we don't have to look for a connection to Luthor this time. Chris Trifyllis worked at LexCorp's main computer lab," her husband said.
Her head snapped up. "Lex cleaning up after himself?"
"Maybe." Clark looked both fierce and sad, reminding her of how he had looked so long ago when they were working on their first story together and had found Dr. Platt's body. He cared so much. She touched his shoulder, and he took a deep breath and continued briefing her, "Trifyllis's brother found him."
"Where is he?"
"Detective Barton said he went down to the Vernon P.D. to talk to a police artist, but I checked and he's already left." He glanced at his notes. "He works in a lab in Bakerline—Lafayette, actually, and lives in Oaktown."
"I don't suppose Barton said whether he had any suspects in mind yet."
"Not the brother, if that's what you're wondering, but I suppose it's possible."
"Hmmm." Lois wandered across the living room and winced as she glanced into the kitchen where the people from the crime lab were still at work. "Clark, why do you think he was at home during the middle of the afternoon?"
He shrugged. "Sick? Worked late last night? Came home for lunch? Maybe his brother would know."
She took one more look around the living room, then started for the door. "I think that should be our next stop. Call the lab and see if he's there."
Nick didn't have the heart to work on his experiment any more, not today. He wandered through his lab, touching the equipment as if it belonged to someone else, as if he couldn't imagine what it was for. He ended up at his desk, staring blankly at the pile of papers and disks and—
Disks. He dug through the mess, looking for the package Chris had given him the previous evening. A stiff, white cardboard disk mailer … there it was. It was still blank. He'd forgotten to address it to Alex and drop it in the mail—and that was almost the last thing Chris had said to him last night. Nick had been too busy with his project to notice when his brother left the lab … but now he would give anything to have Chris walk in the door again. He turned on his computer and shoved the disk into the zip drive.
Two squad cars blocked the drive at the computer geek's house when Enrico slowly cruised by. He frowned. Such a quick response might mean that the guy who had pulled up when he and Lindy left the house had discovered the murder—which might mean the cops already had their descriptions.
Yanking off the glasses he was wearing, he gradually sped up to the speed limit, then turned at the next corner. He was in a different car, but he'd better dump the GQ clothes and glasses before he returned to this area. But he had another stop to make before he changed, and he headed for the freeway and the LexCorp information technologies center.
Lois shepherded the Jeep Cherokee across town with her usual aggressive skill, but Clark noticed that she was looking pensive as she took one of the Lafayette exits and left the freeway. "Is something wrong, Lois?" he asked.
"Y-y-yeah," she began slowly. "Clark?"
"I don't want you to think I'm complaining or something because I'm really not, and I *do* understand that you can't just ignore real emergencies, and I wouldn't want you to, anyway." She paused for a moment, then plunged on. "But there are days—what am I saying? Weeks!—when it seems like one emergency after another, and when it goes on very long, I start feeling like a single parent." She hesitated again, then said in a small voice, "Except sometimes I think it'd be easier if I was."
His head snapped around. "What!" Easier not to be married to him? The thought made his heart hurt with an almost physical sensation—like his reaction to Lois or Laura being in danger.
She faced the crowded boulevard and started to answer calmly, but her voice began rising almost at once. "I know it isn't your fault, Clark, but I *hate* not being able to depend on you to take care of things! It's such a hassle having to scramble around and adjust my schedule to cover what you were supposed to do."
"Like Laura's well-child appointment this morning," he whispered.
One corner of her mouth lifted ruefully, but she wasn't smiling. "Yeah."
Too focused on her earlier comment to feel defensive, he swallowed hard, trying to get the question past a lump of Kryptonite in his throat. "But—but how would it be easier if you were single?"
Lois glanced at him, and her expression softened, and she reached out to cover his hand with hers. "Oh, Clark, I don't mean that I wish we weren't married. I'd *never* wish that." Her hand tightened over his. "I just meant that if I were single, I'd know ahead of time that I had to take care of all the stuff for Laura and the house, and it'd be part of my schedule instead of trying to cram it in at the last minute."
He took a deep breath, too depressed to defend himself. "What do you want me to do?"
She swung the Jeep around a corner, barely missing a pedestrian who chose that minute to start across the street. "Nothing. I'm just venting. I mean, what are you going to do? Let three hundred people die in a plane crash because I don't want to cover for you and take Laura to the doctor's office?"
"Lois! Look out!" Clark yelped.
At his warning, she smashed on the brakes. The vehicle slued across the street, skidding until it came to a stop, just missing a car parked on the other side of the street. Shaken, Lois leaned her head against the steering wheel for an instant, then raised up to ask, "What was it?"
He nodded toward the boy who had chased the football into the street, then regretted it when his wife yelled out the window, "Hey! What d'you think you're doing?"
The teenager made a rude gesture and shouted even ruder comments, and she fumbled for her seatbelt, trying to yank it open. "Lois—" Clark cautioned her.
She hesitated, then closed the door and restarted the Jeep, limiting her response to a glare as she drove past the boys. "Didn't their parents teach them not to play in the street? I nearly hit another car, trying to avoid them. And what are they doing out of school at this time of day anyway?" she muttered.
Wisely, Clark didn't remind her that at most public schools, the school day was over long before five. Instead, he chewed over what Lois had said. Not her irritation over his absences. Irritation or exasperation was her normal reaction to being repeatedly interrupted; he expected that and dealt with it by being extra loving and helpful when he got back. What worried him was the implication of her complaint: that he might finally be gone so much that his return would be an intrusion instead of a welcome event.
"So, what else did the detective have to say?" Lois asked.
Clark looked around. The boys were out of sight, and Lois had calmed down, but she apparently didn't want to discuss his Superman disappearances any more. That was okay. Neither did he. He flipped open his notebook.
Owen Preece unlocked Chris Trifyllis's office for Mr. O'Reilly. He didn't bother to ask what the dark-haired man was looking for; he recognized him as one of Lex Luthor's top aides, and that was all he needed to know. All he *wanted* to know, actually, except maybe why Chris hadn't come back after lunch. But he wasn't going to ask O'Reilly that. This whole business was giving him a sick, sinking sensation in his stomach, and he wondered if this might be a good time to update his resume.
Nick stared at his computer screen. The big files had been nothing but garbage—encrypted, maybe—but the two smaller ones contained a list of passwords associated with LexCorp and, more importantly, a note to Alex stating what Chris wanted him to do. Nick pulled the disk out of the drive and stared at it.
Was this why Chris had been shot? Had he gotten into something that someone in LexCorp was willing to kill for?
Nick shoved the disk back into the mailer and addressed it to Alex, then stuck it back in his pants pocket. Briefly, he considered turning it over to the police, but they wouldn't be able to decode it anyway, so it made more sense to give it to Alex first.
"I think we should've called first," Clark said as they started down yet another hallway inside the Gendell Foundation lab complex. "The guy just discovered his brother's murdered body."
"And that's why we didn't," Lois told him. "If we asked permission for an interview, he'd turn us down, and then we'd never find out who killed his brother."
That they had managed to get so far was a testimony to Lois's confidence. She had whipped a generic photo-name badge identifying her as Lisa Lowell out of her purse and pinned it on before they entered the side door. That, teamed with her air of being where she belonged, seemed to keep anyone from questioning their presence. "And besides," she continued, following the hallway around a corner, "that's the point, isn't it? Catching the bad guys so they can't hurt people any more."
Clark nodded. She was right, but he couldn't shake the feeling that there was something ghoulish—or at least, ill mannered—about stomping into other people's lives at the moment of their greatest pain or humiliation. A sacrilegious idea for an investigative reporter, but he thought it was part of what kept him mindful of people's feelings and helped him temper Lois's bulldog approach to getting information.
Nick pushed away from his desk, glancing out the window into the hallway as he did. A couple was walking up to the door of his lab: a dark-haired man with glasses and a petite, dark-haired woman next to him.
Oh god. He dove behind his monitor, nearly knocking his chair over in his hurry to get out of sight of the window, flinching in expectation of a gunshot. Those were the people the police thought might be Chris's killers, and now, just a few hours after he saw them leaving Chris's house, they showed up at his lab.
A sharp knock at the door startled him, and he quickly pressed himself back behind the monitor, biting his lip to hold back his gasping breath. Surely they would go away if he didn't answer the door.
Oh god, they knew his name and where he worked. He reached for his cordless phone to call security, but it wasn't beside his computer. Looking around, he saw the receiver lying on the table across the room—in full view of the hall window. And the lab door was unlocked. His heart thundered as if it were trying to gallop out of his chest. He had maybe five more seconds before they walked in.
But what did he have that could hold off a pistol? A dagger-shaped letter opener? Nick would have laughed if he hadn't been afraid that it would turn into hysteria.
"Lo-is!" Clark hissed as she reached for the door knob. "He's not answering. He probably isn't here."
"The lights are on," she pointed out.
"Maybe the lights stay on—for security reasons."
She paused in mid-turn. "All I'm going to do is poke my head in the door and call him. But if someone here was willing to use his vision thingy to see if the guy was here, maybe I wouldn't *have* to barge in."
Clark shook his head in disapproval as she pushed the door open and stepped into the small, crowded lab, but he followed her in.
"Dr. Trifyllis?" she called. "Your door was open. Are you still here?"
He caught her hand. Something was wrong. He tipped his glasses down and began to scan the room. "Lois, wait," he said—
—when a white blaze of light seized them and held them rigidly in place. Then the light vanished, and they crumpled onto the floor.
For a moment, Nick stared at the couple lying in the door of his lab. A part of his mind was counting the seconds since he had fired the beam at them, wondering whether they would be unconscious as long or longer than Jolly and the cat had been. But he was wasting what might be his only chance to escape, and he tucked his cognitive facilitator under his arm and, stepping around the still bodies, darted out the door and down to his car.
END ACT 3
"Yes, sir. He called to tell me that he was able to adapt his device to use the stone." Asabi paused, his voice deepening through the phone receiver. "His initial attempts at soul transference were successful."
Lex swiveled his chair around to face the penthouse window and puffed on his cigar. The undisturbed expanse of sky was a good place to let his dreams play out. If he could achieve this coup …
"However," Asabi continued, "Gendell has renewed his funding for another three years. Nick may not find your offer so desirable now."
Lex ignored that. If Asabi's little protege didn't want to bring his invention to LexCorp, there were other ways to acquire the device. "Has he tried it on humans yet?"
"No, sir. Only animals. After my warning, I doubt he will risk it with humans. However, he has attempted at least one interspecies exchange."
A Kryptonian was a different species. "Did he say how it went?" Lex asked casually.
"Only that it was a … traumatic experience for both animals."
Asabi continued, but Lex wasn't listening. It sounded as if the device might be too risky to use yet. Perhaps it *would* be better to entice this Nick-person to his employ. Coming to a swift conclusion, he broke across what his henchman was saying. "Has he returned the stone?"
"Not yet. He often works until late. I expect him to visit during the next hour."
"When he comes, get the stone. Do *not* let him leave with it. When I offer him a position at ArLex Laboratories, I want to be able to offer him access to the stone."
"Ah, an inducement. You are wise, sir."
Wise enough to recognize flattery when he heard it. "Don't fail me, Asabi," Lex warned.
"It is a pleasure to serve," the mystic murmured.
Lois awakened to feel a hard floor under her. <What?> Why was she lying on the floor? She lay still, her gaze traveling around the doorway. It was different; it wasn't the house on Hyperion. Memory returned in a swift collage of images. Opening the door at Nick … Nick … Trifyllis's lab. Stepping inside. And then the light.
Oh God, she was going to have such a headache when she moved, and she winced in anticipation of it as she awkwardly rolled over. But there was no pain—and a strange woman was lying on the floor next to her. Dark hair, slim, a light blue suit dress over a lacy, dark blue—
Wait. That's what *she* had put on this morning. Suddenly something shifted in her mind … and Lois sucked in a panicky breath.
That was *her* lying on the floor so still and lifeless. And *she*—whatever she should call this self that was thinking—didn't hurt anywhere, even after collapsing onto the floor. Her eyes slammed shut. <I can't be— Oh, Clark! Laura!> She sank her teeth into her lower lip to hold back a despairing wail—
—and nearly burst into tears when she realized that that didn't hurt either. But the part of her that had always refused to give up came to her rescue. <Think!> she ordered desperately. There had to be another explanation. Maybe the body wasn't hers. Maybe it was a double or a clone … *any*thing except her own dead body.
Lois opened her eyes. That was her jacket, her earrings, even her perfume. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble, she decided. But look at the way the hair was clumped up on the sides. It was probably a wig. She reached out to touch the shock of dark chestnut hair … and stopped, staring at her extended hand.
It wasn't her hand.
It wasn't even a female hand. She brought her hand up in front of her face and studied it. Large, strong, long-fingered … and undeniably masculine. Lois felt the strong steady hammering of her pulse in her ears. She knew this hand almost as well as she knew her own.
Slowly, she touched her face—and felt glasses. It was impossible, yet it was the only thing that made any sense. Galvanized, she grabbed her purse, which lay a few feet away, and dug through it until she found a small round mirror.
For an instant, she loosely curled her fingers around the mirror—smaller than she remembered in this large hand—hesitating, afraid of confirmation. But she couldn't hide from this, and she dealt with it the only way she knew how, the way she dealt with every challenge. She lifted the mirror—
—and stared into her husband's stunned brown eyes.
Lex took a long, slow drag on his cigar. If this worked, it would be the final defeat of that thorn-in-his-side, Superman. But he didn't plan to make such an exchange hastily or lightly. Before the switch, he would liquidate his assets and transfer them to a Swiss bank account. Then he would not only be the most physically powerful man in the world, but he would have the financial resources to match.
His lips curled in a terrifying smile. Clark Kent had never known what to do with his power. At every turn, he shackled himself with his stupid morality. So, despite his incredible abilities, he had never managed to defeat a simple human—Lex Luthor.
That wasn't a problem Lex would have to face. *He* knew how to use power and had always delighted in using it to get away with whatever he chose to do. But armed with super-powers, it wouldn't be a question of getting away with anything. The world—and every pleasure in it—would be his for the taking. Nothing would be beyond his reach.
That thought put him in such a good mood that, when Beth hesitantly entered his office, he waved her in and got up to greet her. He clasped her shoulders and dipped his head to brush a kiss against her cheek. "What did you want, my dear?"
She seemed a little surprised, but she replied, "The chef wants to know whether you'd rather have swordfish or squab for dinner."
Lex smiled to himself. Killing pigeons seemed appropriate. "Squab," he said and slipped his arms around her. "Put on something pretty tonight. I thought we might go dancing after dinner."
Beth tipped her head back to look at him. "You're in a good mood. Business doing better?"
"Better than I'd expected, but tonight I just want to celebrate—" he changed his 'being me' in mid-thought to include her— "us." She might not be the woman he would have freely chosen, but she had made his return to power and the appearance of respectability possible and he was feeling generous. He pressed a kiss on her parted lips. "So, go make yourself beautiful."
The first thing Clark noticed was the headache. He didn't remember a run-in with kryptonite, but he couldn't mistake the pain thundering in the back of his head. Except … he didn't feel nauseated … nor that an inferno was searing his nerve-endings. It was just … a headache … and a twinge of pain in his wrist where it was bent under him. He shifted, trying to get his weight off his arm.
"Clark, are you okay? Oh, please wake up! Can you hear me, Clark?"
That almost sounded like … Nah. It was crazy to think that his double from the alternate universe was here.
"Can you open your eyes? Are you hurt?"
All he wanted to do was slip back into the comfortable darkness where unnatural headaches and impossibly sore wrists couldn't trouble him, but the voice wouldn't let him alone. Frowning, he shook his head and began, "Leave me alo—"
His eyes flew open; he stared in shock at the other Clark looking worriedly at him. His voice! "Wha-what happened?" he asked—
—and recoiled again at the sound. High-pitched, unmistakably feminine … what had happened to him? Ignoring the pain in his head, he raised up on one elbow and looked down at himself. A suit dress? Nylons? He ran a disbelieving hand down his chest, over an all too familiar shape. Horrified, he lifted his gaze to his double's. "Lois?"
The image of himself nodded, and he groaned, "Oh God, not again," and let himself drop back onto the floor. But his head bumped against the hard surface. "Ow."
Owen Preece eased open the door to Chris's office as if he expected to find a pistol pointing at him. "Did you need something, Mr. O'Reilly?"
Luthor's aide, who reminded Owen of the Mafia hitmen in the movies, pushed away from the computer. "How do you check for hidden or deleted files on this thing?"
Owen edged around the desk, muttering, "Excuse me, please," then hunched over the keyboard. The recycle bin was empty, as he'd expected, but it never hurt to look for the easy way first. He logged off and logged back on under his own code, which gave him access to programs and functions that even Chris didn't know about. When the computer was logged onto the network, a copy of everything done on it was sent to the director's computer, but Owen was certain that Chris knew that. He might not, however, have known about the sentinel program that ran whether he was on the network or not and made copies of all created files, even emails that were closed without being saved and other files that were saved to disks rather than the hard drive.
Owen entered the three-part code that gave him access to the copied files and opened the hidden directory. "Are you looking for anything in particular?" he asked politely.
O'Reilly leaned forward, reaching across him and scrolling through the list. "Check the stuff he did last night and this morning."
It could have been a long, tedious task, but O'Reilly took only a few seconds to decide whether he wanted to see more of a file after Owen opened it. In the end, they kept a short word-processing file and a scrap of an email letter.
"Hi, Alexios," the first file began. "I have a puzzle you might enjoy—an encrypted file that I can't break. I'm supposed to be protecting it, but I'd like to know what it is—a map to where the bodies are buried or what. Anyway, give it a shot if you have time and let me know what you find. I bow to your superior skill :-) Christoph"
The email letter was even shorter. "Hi, Nico. Thanks for sending the package to Alex. I'll tell you about it at practice tonight if you don't get caught up in that brain drain project of yours and forget :-P C"
At O'Reilly's direction, Owen printed out copies of the two letters and deleted the files from the sentinel program. Luthor's aide took the print-outs in silence, then asked, "Do you know who Nico is?"
Owen hesitated, but the information was in Chris's personnel file, so his silence wouldn't help anyone. "I don't know about Nico, but he has a brother named Nick."
"Here in Metropolis?"
"In one of the boroughs, I think. Maybe Bakerline."
Owen locked the door of Chris's office when the other man left. But instead of leaving, too, the IT director went to his office, where he sat down at his desk and covered his eyes, shivering and wondering what Chris had gotten into. After a moment, he opened his address book and reached for the phone.
*** "Not again?" Lois repeated. "You think this is like what happened when you and that—that criminal changed places?" If it had been hard to look at that older man and see her husband, it was almost impossible to look at *herself* and see him. And *this* body—even standing felt awkward. She was too big, clumsy almost, and her body moved wrong.
"Woody Samms? Yeah, it feels like it." He tried to stand up, but his high heel turned under him, and he collapsed.
Lois grabbed his arm and caught him before he could twist his ankle, feeling the effortless power that made nothing of his woman's weight. She had felt it before, as Ultra Woman, but that had been different. It had been her *own* body, boosted, augmented, simple to control once she realized how.
Not now. Her hand nearly wrapped around his upper arm—was she *that* tiny to him?—and she saw the surprise in his face as he looked up at her and winced at her tight grip. "Careful, hon," he told her, rubbing his sore arm. "You're gonna have a bruise there."
"Oops. Better than a sprained ankle, though." She regarded his appearance critically. "I knew I didn't like the way that new hair stylist cut my hair. Does it always stick out like that?" she asked, reaching out to smooth down one side of his hair.
His gaze flashed upward to meet hers, and Lois laughed. It might be her face, but she would recognize that deer-in-the-headlights look of Clark's anywhere. "Never mind. That's one of those no-win questions women ask that husbands hate, isn't it?"
He smiled but adroitly avoided that potential pitfall by changing the subject. "Lois, what do you remember happening?"
She frowned, thinking. "I opened the door and called out to Trifyllis. And then … " She paused, trying to remember. "And then I think you told me to wait, and there was a blinding light … and we woke up like this."
"Yeah, that's what I remember, too. But that isn't the way it happened before."
"No. Samms shook my hand. He was holding something … something with straight edges that pressed again my palm. Like a die or maybe a pyramid." Clark thought back, trying to remember, and shook his head. "I don't know what it was, but when it touched me … I was frozen in place and all I could hear was my heartbeat. And then it was like I got shoved out of the way—and I was suddenly looking the other direction … back at myself. And I don't remember anything after that. Not until I crawled out of the bushes at the park and staggered to my feet." One corner of his mouth lifted in a brief smile. "It was the same when we changed back. We shook hands, and I could feel that thing he was holding dig into my hand. It froze me again, and then I was back in my own body."
"No, that isn't what happened here," Lois mused. "I mean, we both froze and were unconscious, but that's all. You know what it reminded me of?"
"Being shot by that red kryptonite beam that turned me into Ultra Woman."
"So someone had to do the shooting. Nick Trifyllis?"
"I can't imagine who else." She tried to use Clark's x-ray vision, but she got an odd distortion instead. "What's wrong?"
He looked back at her in quick concern. "What d'you mean?"
"I'm trying to use your vision-thingy to check the place out."
"Oh." He reached up and lowered the glasses on her nose. "Lead crystal. You can't use vision powers through it."
She looked through the equipment into every corner of the lab as she followed Clark, who had gone to search where the light had appeared to come from. "Is that why you were wearing glasses when you came to Metropolis? He isn't here," Lois added. Clark was searching what appeared to be Trifyllis's workstation.
"I didn't think he would be," he admitted, methodically opening drawers and disk cartons on the desk and checking under the piles of papers. "Glasses?" he asked, picking up an old-looking book and thumbing through it.
"You know. You were wearing glasses before you ever invented Superman, so they couldn't have been a disguise."
"Oh, that." He set the book down and crouched to check through the boxes under the desk. "They started off as trainers—so I wouldn't use my vision powers accidentally, and after a while … actually, I guess it was kind of a disguise."
Lois turned around and looked at him in surprise. "Really? I didn't think you had a secret identity before Superman."
His voice was a little muffled under the desk, but with super hearing, she didn't have any trouble making out what he said. "I didn't. But if people started wondering who was strong or fast enough to have done whatever it was, they didn't usually look at the guy in glasses first. Especially since I tried to take them off when I was doing something … super." He straightened up. "I don't see anything in here that could've done this to us."
She turned around slowly, the glasses low on her nose as she scanned the entire room, studying each piece of equipment. "I don't either. He must've taken it with him."
The phone rang shrilly, interrupting their discussion, but the answering machine picked up before the second ring. "Leave a message at the beep," the recording directed.
"Nick Trifyllis?" the phone caller began. "It's Owen Preece, Chris's boss. Chris didn't come back to work after lunch, and I can't reach him at home. If you know what's up, let me know." The caller hesitated a moment, then continued, "Do you know anything about package for Alex? Some people are interested in it." The phone disconnected, and the loud buzz of the dial tone filled the room until the answering machine clicked off.
Clark's gaze locked with Lois's. "A package for Alex? That was odd."
"Yeah. We'll have to talk to Owen Preece." She glanced at her watch—no, *Clark's* watch. "But it's after six, and we also need to pick up Laura. Tomorrow?"
He nodded. "We've gotta undo this—this switch first." He looked around the small, cluttered room, his expression hopeless. "But I don't think anything here can help us."
"Me either," Lois agreed. Her gaze fell on the book Clark had been looking through. "What's that?"
He glanced down. "A book on astral projection. I thought it might have something to do with what happened to us, but it's pretty 'out there.'"
"And this isn't?" she asked, indicating the six-foot Kryptonian male form she was inhabiting. She opened the cover and looked at the bookplate, and her heart rate took a sharp leap upward. "Clark, look at this."
"Yeah? 'May you find the answers you seek—'" he read aloud. "I can't read the signature, though."
Lois's voice was shaking. "Asabi. It's signed, 'Asabi.'"
She nodded. "Asabi was with Lex when—when—" She stumbled to a stop. The memory was still a painful one—for both of them—and she changed 'when you let Lex drive off with me' to, "—when my memory was gone and Lex had me. They had … a couple of clones in some containers there, and Lex … " She closed her eyes, trying to remember. "Lex planned to transfer our consciousness into them."
She didn't think her face had ever worn such a narrow-eyed, clench-jawed look. "So you think Asabi had something to do with it," Clark began. He stared at the inscription in the book. "And he just happens to pop up in connection with Nick Trifyllis, too." He lifted his head to look up at her, a muscle flexing in his jaw. "I don't believe in that much coincidence."
"Neither do—" She broke off and turned her head abruptly as she heard a scream for help.
"What is it?" Clark asked.
"Someone needs Superman."
"But that aide of Lex's might be on his way here."
He rolled his eyes. "Lois, I'm heading back to the Planet to get Laura. I'll meet you at home. Now … " He twirled his finger as if he were stirring a drink.
She caught the corner of her lower lip in her teeth, then nodded and, stepping out of sight of the hall window, spun in a super-speed blur—
—except, when she came to a stop, Clark's jacket was caught around her elbows, and the knot of his tie was up by her ear. "Don't you dare laugh," she told him and began to strip off her outer clothes at super speed.
A few seconds later, Superman stood there, dressed properly but looking uncertain and ill-at-ease. "Clark … "
"Honey, you did a terrific job as Ultra Woman. You can do this, too." He started to reach toward her to caress her cheek, but he stopped, his hand wavering. His jaw tightened, and he cupped the side of her cheek deliberately. "Good luck, honey," he whispered.
Nick had made the maximum cash withdrawals on his three credit cards, gassed up his car, and stopped by the nearest drive-up burger joint. Now, on the expressway to New York City, he crept along at thirty miles an hour—a remarkable speed during rush hour, but a pace that drove his blood pressure skyward as he kept glancing back in his mirror, looking for the car he had seen those murderous missionaries driving. Despite everything he told himself, he couldn't make himself believe that they weren't already on his trail. It took every bit of control he had to drive in his own lane and not attract more attention by swerving from one lane to another in an effort to go faster.
He chewed a french fry nervously, hoping that Alex was home and not out partying someplace.
The school bus, loaded with members of the Pelham High girls' track team, clung precariously to the edge of the overpass above the freeway, the guard rail peeled back and locked into the front fender by the force of the impact. Nearby, the jack-knifed tanker truck was pouring gasoline onto the roadway, and one spark, even from the bus scraping against the guard rail as it was moved, could set off an explosion that would destroy both vehicles.
Lois hesitated, then swooped down to grab the school bus. If she could get it clear, she only had to worry about the truck driver if there were a fire. It should have been an easy catch—as Ultra Woman she had brought in an unpowered jet, which was much more awkward to balance—but she misjudged the distance, overshooting her target, and the backwash of her flight rocked the bus and dislodged it. It started sliding, the guardrail bending toward the freeway below, while the terrified girls scrambled toward the emergency exit in back, their weight shift unbalancing the vehicle even more.
Grabbing the front bumper, Lois stopped the bus's forward plunge, but it was caught on the guardrail, and she couldn't lift it out of danger without tearing off the guardrail. What would Clark do? she wondered. She worked her way along the side to where the railing was crunched in the fender. Sparks from tearing the metal apart or using her heat vision to cut it away might ignite the gas fumes she could smell so strongly. But how else could she get the bus free?
Cold, she thought. Metal would shatter under extreme cold. And there wouldn't be any sparks.
She took a deep breath, trying to remember how Clark had taught her to draw energy from the air she took in. It was more a matter of quietness than of force, he had said when she blew the boulder over instead of freezing it. She hoped she had learned enough about quietness now, and she let out her breath in a stream of liquid-nitrogen-cold air on the guardrail.
A gentle, almost negligible blow, and the railing shattered. Then she soared upward, lifting the bus out of danger. Not bad, she thought, setting the vehicle off the road and opening the emergency door in back to let the girls clamber out. "Stay with the bus," she warned them, then rocketed back to get the half-conscious truck driver and gently set him down by the bus.
Buoyed by her successful rescues, Lois stopped consciously thinking about controlling Clark's body as she zoomed back to the accident site to clear away the gasoline. But when she landed next to the tanker, she misjudged again and found herself buried six inches into the shoulder of the road. She grimaced and stepped onto the roadway. High speed stops were definitely out until she got used to being six feet tall instead of five-and-a-half.
"Hi, Lois. Long day?" the childcare director greeted Clark, glancing down at his bare feet.
Frazzled by the trip back to the Planet, Clark nearly looked over his shoulder for his wife, but he caught himself and said, "You don't know the half of it, Ruth." He didn't know how Lois managed to see to drive from so low behind the dash, or how she got out of the Jeep without catching her high heel in the door frame. Or, for that matter, how she managed to balance in high heels with a body that insisted on swinging from side to side as he put weight on one leg or the other. The torture devices she called shoes had found a new home in her purse after he'd twisted his ankle on the way to the elevator. If he could have found someplace private, he'd have stripped off those worthless pantyhose, too—but the ladies' room didn't qualify, and he didn't have Lois's knack of peeling them off without revealing anything more than a couple of inches of thigh.
Ruth Wilson returned with Laura and her bags, and for the first time since he had awakened to find himself inside Lois's body, he smiled with genuine pleasure. "How's my Laura-babe?" he asked.
The baby abandoned the fist she had been chewing on and held out her arms to him, nearly falling from Ruth's arms. Clark grabbed her—and her unexpected weight forced a soft grunt from him. She was *heavy*. But when she wrapped her arms around his neck and clung to him, he forgot about his throbbing ankle and the strain her weight put on his back muscles, and he hugged her back, feeling the stresses of the day fall away from him. Now, if Lois could just make it home safely so they could get switched back, he'd be a happy man.
A few minutes later, laden with baby, diaper bag, insulated milk bag, and purse, Clark wasn't sure he and Laura were going to get home themselves. He didn't have the strength to carry Laura in one arm, not the way he had always done, with his forearm under her bottom and her legs hanging down his side. But when he used both arms, he couldn't carry the purse and Laura's bags, too.
Ignoring the curious stares from people in the lobby, he stopped a moment and closed his eyes, trying to picture what Lois did. She used one arm, he recalled, but it was high on Laura's back, just under her arms, and Laura sat further around the side instead of in front. He shifted the baby down and to his side and nearly groaned in relief when Laura settled onto his hip and took her weight off his arm and shoulder. He picked up the three heavy bags and started toward the elevator, wondering how Lois ever managed to carry baby and bags and still maintain her balance in high heels. And people thought his flying and super strength were miraculous!
Lois was already home and had changed into jeans and a flannel shirt by the time Clark and Laura drove up, and she jogged down the steps to open the rear door and lift Laura from her car seat. "She's so light," Lois said, surprised. "It's like picking up a feather." She turned to see Clark limp around the front of the Jeep. "Cl—honey, what happened?"
He took a deep breath and let it out forcefully. "Don't ask." She looked down at his bare feet, and he added, "I'm afraid I ruined your panythose. But you can take these—" he handed her the stylish heels that matched her dark-blue lace top— "and throw them away for all I care." Clark turned and hobbled up the steps to the front entry while Lois stared at him open-mouthed.
When she entered the living room, Clark had stripped off the shredded nylons and sunk onto the couch with his feet on the coffee table and his eyes closed. "Clark?" she asked hesitantly.
He opened his eyes. "I'm sorry. I twisted my ankle after all. Are you okay?"
She frowned in puzzlement. "Okay? Why wouldn't I be?"
He took Laura from her and cuddled with the baby for a moment. "Don't you remember? The longer Woodys'—soul—was in my body, the more it lost its invulnerability."
"Have you been worrying about that, too?" Lois sat down next to him. Her instinctive response was to smooth his hair away from his forehead, but when she looked into her own face, the impulse died.
He shrugged, then looked down, and Lois felt tears blur her eyes. "I love you," she whispered and, closing her eyes, pressed a kiss on his temple.
He turned and hugged her. "I love *you*."
They clung to each other, trying to find the strength to go on, to face a situation that cut at the very roots of who they were, that altered their relationship in the most fundamental way. After a moment, Clark raised his head. "When Woody switched with me, I nearly got back to my own body twice, even without touching the stone, except he kept fighting the exchange. Maybe … "
Lois finished the idea. "Maybe if we both try to get back, we can reverse this?"
"It wouldn't hurt to try." He set Laura on the floor and handed her some toys from her diaper bag.
"Okay." Lois shifted so she faced him. "What do we do?"
Taking her hands in his, he said, "Close your eyes and concentrate on being in your own body."
They closed their eyes, and for a moment, the only sound in the room was Laura chewing on a rubber toy. Lois opened her eyes. "Nothing happened."
Clark kept his eyes closed, and his hands tightened on hers. "Try again."
They yearned toward each other, drawing together until their foreheads touched, but still: "Nothing," Lois said in frustration. "It's not working." She pulled away and stood up, pacing restlessly. "Clark, what are we going to do?"
He visibly set aside his own disappointment. "Find Nick Trifyllis," he said.
Frustration and fear drove her to put the unthinkable into words. "And what if we can't find him?"
Clark lifted his espresso-dark gaze to hers. "I don't know."
To Be Continued …
… in Episode 9, "Walk In My Shoes", by Sheila Harper
Characters in these episodes are copyrighted by DC Comics, December 3rd Production and Warner Brothers. No infringement is intended in any part by the Season 6 group, however, the ideas expressed in each episode are copyrighted (c) 1999 to the respective authors.