By Snave <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Rated: PG (Nature's lethal violence, witnessed by children)
Submitted: November 2005
Summary: Sometimes, in life-and-death situations, being a "cherub" with superpowers is not enough. In those times, a *lot* of extra help may be required…
This story is a sequel to the author's previous story, 'Cherub.' It begins a month or so after that one ends. While this story contains enough clues and hints that you don't absolutely have to read the previous piece, some things might be clearer if you do.
[WHAM warning]: This story is much darker than the previous one, and contains a double- or triple-WHAMmy, each WHAM darker and more serious than the one before. This story is a death fic — although not in the strict sense. That is, 'all the toys are returned to the shelf' in at least as good condition as when they were borrowed…all except one: a venerable and well-beloved member of the Kent household is called upon to make the 'final sacrifice' to ensure the survival of several of the others… ;-) (You'll see the reason for the 'smiley' as you read on.)
This story uses the characters of Emma Kent and her sister, borrowed from a story by Lynn M. Lynn was kind enough to loan me the use of Emma's character for my previous story, and I'm hoping that she will do the same for this one :)
Many thanks to my kind, patient, and meticulous GE, Erin Klingler, who believes that effusive compliments (i.e. flattery) will encourage me to write more about Emma. Who knows, maybe it will work…
This piece bears a title similar to one written by John Steinbeck. But be assured that any similarities between that one and this, are purely coincidental.
As usual, this story is solely for fun, and not for profit. The characters which are recognizably the property of December 3rd Productions, remain so. Any characters not claimed by Lynn M. are mine.
"Middleton! My office, *now*!"
Walter jerked his attention away from his computer screen and caught James Olsen grinning at him from the adjacent desk. "Uh — how much trouble am I in?" he asked as he began to rise.
"Relax. He's just doing that to spook the new guy. He says he 'loves the smell of fear in the newsroom,' but he's really an old softie. But ya better get a move on anyway," he added.
Walter hastened over to Perry White's door and knocked. He heard an inarticulate grunt from inside and, taking it for permission to enter, he stepped inside and closed the door behind him. "You wanted me, sir?"
Mr. White set down the copy he was perusing and glanced up. "Took you long enough," he growled. "And don't call me 'Sir.' I work for a living!" Perry stared at the wide eyes of the young man in front of him a moment longer, then abruptly broke into a guffaw.
"Take it easy, son; I'm just funnin' with ya." He stood up and walked to the door, closing the louvered blinds on it and on the window into the newsroom. "Editing a newspaper gets to be a tense business; you have to take your fun where you can."
Walter glanced around the office, noticing Clark Kent sitting in a corner. Clark smiled slightly and cast a wink at him.
"Well, how have you enjoyed your first few weeks at The Daily Planet?"
Walter quickly turned back to Mr. White. "Truthfully? I love it. Getting to do research for Lane and Kent, for Myerson — getting hands-on mentoring by James Olsen — it's all like a dream come true. I feel like I'm where I belong."
"Good. I'm glad you're starting off with an upbeat attitude. And you're proving to be everything that Lois and Clark said you were. Keep it up, son. But just one thing — *don't* call me Sir!" he repeated. "It makes me feel like one of the suits upstairs." He gave an exaggerated shiver, and Walter grinned. "'Perry' will do — or 'Chief,' if you feel the need to be formal.
"Have a seat," Perry went on. "I understand that you have a rather special relationship with Lane and Kent."
Walter was non-plussed. "I — I do?"
"I'm referring to the fact that their daughter saved your life a few months ago — using some rather 'unusual' talents."
"You — you *know* about that?" Walter glanced in alarm at Clark, who simply nodded.
"I've known for a few years that the Kents shared a rather 'special' secret."
"Yeah," put in Clark, "but he didn't tell *us* he knew until last year!"
"Yuh, well — feller's gotta keep *some* things to himself. Anyway, the reason I 'invited' you in here —" he and Clark shared a grin, "— is that there's a 'long weekend' coming up in a couple days. I've got this cabin up in the mountains west of Metropolis. I don't use it much, since Jerry and his brother are grown, and Alice and I aren't on the same footing we used to be…" He sighed and went on. "Anywho, I offered it to Lois and Clark and their family for the weekend. And they suggested that I extend the offer to you and your new wife as well, so that y'all can sorta get to know each other better. I expect that you and — Karen, isn't it? — have lots of questions. This'll be your chance to get them to yourselves for a few days and get some answers.
"Well, how about it? Interested?"
"Um — well, yeah! Of course we're interested! Karen's been dying to talk some more with Lois about all this." He turned to Clark. "But are you sure we won't be putting you out?"
Clark flashed him a warm smile. "We'd love to have you. Lois and I figure that we need to start spending more time with our new friends. What with my 'special' duties, time is a luxury we don't often have a lot of. Anyway, we need you to meet the rest of the family."
"The rest? I thought that Emma was your only child."
"No, we have another daughter, Gracie, who's two years younger than Emma; she just turned five a couple of months ago. And, by the way," he added, "she doesn't know about my 'extracurricular' activities, or about Emma's abilities. You and Karen will have to be careful about when to bring up that subject."
"Well — it sounds great! I can't wait to call Karen; she'll be over the moon!"
"Okay, get on outta here then; give her a call," said Perry. "Jimmy's covering things this weekend, so you won't be missed."
Walter glanced at Clark. "What about you? Will *you* be missed?" He drew an 'S' on his chest with a finger.
"Don't worry; I'll just slip out every night for a quick 'walk in the woods,' and fly a patrol over Metropolis, so that interested parties will know that Superman's on the job."
"What about emergencies?"
"Even Superman needs some downtime occasionally. Up where we'll be, I won't be able to hear distress calls. The emergency services will have to handle things by themselves over the weekend."
Walter nodded. "I'm going to slip out and make that call. And thanks, Perry, and Clark — to you *and* Lois!"
As Walter returned to his desk, he heard a greeting from beside him. "Well, did they ask you? Are ya going for it?"
"Yeah, they did. I'll know in a minute, soon as I call Karen. And by the way, James, thanks for covering things this next weekend…"
"Man, ya gotta stop *doing* that! 'James' is for by-lines; around here it's 'Jim,' or even better, 'Jimmy.' Okay?"
Walter grinned. "I'll try to remember that." He reached for the phone.
Clark ran through the story once more, surreptitiously using super-speed, and then pressed the key which would send it to the desk of his editor-in-chief. He leaned back in his chair and stretched. "Well, that's it for me; I hope Perry likes it."
"When does he *not* like your stories?" asked Lois from the desk behind him. "It's *my* copy that he keeps sending back. 'Facts, Lane! Substantiated facts!'" she said, in an admirable imitation of Perry's gruff voice.
"Oh, honey, it was just the one time…*this* week." He glanced back at her with a grin.
"Watch it, Kent. Or I won't be as *nice* to you this weekend as I usually am." She grinned at him in turn.
"Oooh. Then I'll definitely watch my step." He frowned. "Lois, I'm still a little worried that we couldn't get the Jeep in for servicing," he said, referring to Lois's beloved Jeep Grand Cherokee. "That wobble in the front wheel worries me a little."
"Well, they said that it was just too short notice, what with everybody going out of town on the weekend. 'Sides, I'm sure it'll be fine. You know what a careful driver I am … *don't* you roll your eyes at me, buster!"
"But you do need to be careful, though, honey, on those mountain dirt tracks. Have you got the instructions from Perry on how to get up there?"
"Yep, they're safely tucked in my purse. When are you and Walter leaving?"
"In about ten minutes. His four-by-four's all loaded. We've got everything except some items that Karen's bringing, plus the clothes for the kids. How long before your sidebar's done?"
"I've got about a half-hour more. Then it's pick up Karen, pick up the kids from school, and we're right behind you."
"Honey, are you sure you don't want Walter and me to wait around and caravan up with you? I'd feel better if…"
"Clark, we'll be fine! Women aren't the fragile creatures you seem to think we are."
"What was I thinking of? Lois Lane's about as fragile as a — as a freight train!"
"And don't you forget it! Remember, you're going up early so you can use your special — talents — to clean the place up in a hurry, as it's not been used for over a year."
"Yeah. I think Perry knows he's getting a good deal letting the Kents use it." He grinned and then glanced back as Walter wandered over.
"Hey, Walter. Ready to head out?"
"Any time you're ready, Clark. Jimmy said he's got everything he needs to hold down the fort. Oh, and Karen called; she wants to bring a sack of treats for the kids, if that's okay." He glanced at Lois.
"I'm *sure* it'll be okay with *them*," she muttered. Then she smiled. "Of course it's okay, Walter. I'm looking forward to the trip up with Karen. She and I'll have lots to talk about — once Gracie goes to sleep." She winked at him.
"Oh, she does. I'm surprised she hasn't started a notebook with all her questions."
"I still can't get over how she got so far off the track last month — thinking Emma and I were *ghosts*!" she chuckled, shaking her head.
"Well, the whole thing was a big misunderstanding. I think she'd just prefer if the whole episode were never mentioned again. And anyway, that's no worse than me thinking I was being saved from drowning by an *angel*," he said somewhat ruefully.
Lois thought it wise to change the subject. "You told us once that she's just finished up her college degree. What did she major in?"
"She graduated as a nurse — an RN, not an LPN. She's actually pretty well qualified in her field," he added, looking a little uncomfortable.
He seemed about to add more, but Perry's voice bellowed from his office door, "Lois? I need that copy *pronto*."
"On it, Chief!" She looked back at them. "Well, you two 'woodsmen extraordinaire' had better head out. Don't worry; we'll be right behind you." She glanced at her watch; there was still barely time to finish the sidebar and then pick up Emma from school before heading over to Karen's.
"Well, sweetie, are you looking forward to seeing the Middletons again?" Lois asked Emma over her shoulder.
"Yeah! I want to talk to 'em some more; 'specially Walter."
"Maybe you can ask him when he's going to take his boat out again. He still keeps your 'favorite' life jacket in it."
"Well, he *said* I could have a ride any time I wanted…"
"I know, honey. But he said it just because he's grateful you saved his life. It's a special gift he's offering…the gift of gratitude. You don't want to abuse a gift like that. There was a guy, once, who got Superman's powers for a while, and he went around charging people for all his rescues. It didn't take people long to start not trusting your father anymore. They figured that, if superheroes always wanted something for doing a good deed, they'd better just try to save themselves. Things weren't so good for Superman around Metropolis until people realized that *he* wasn't like that."
There was silence for a few moments. "Does that mean I should *never* ask him?"
"No, of course not. Just be friends with him, and with Karen. Then they'll be comfortable around you, and they'll invite you lots, without you ever needing to bring it up." She slowed the car, and they pulled into a driveway. "Here we are. Let's go get Karen and load up her stuff."
As they were walking up the front steps, the door opened and Karen Middleton stepped out onto the porch, her arms loaded with random items. "Hi! I saw you pull in, and I couldn't wait. There are a couple more things inside; then I'll be ready to go."
"Hi, yourself. You *are* an eager beaver. You must like the great outdoors."
"Nah. My idea of roughing it is spending four years in a college dormatory. I'm just really looking forward to spending time with you and Clark. *And* Lara." She winked at Emma.
"Um, better not call me that," said Emma. "I already got in trouble for telling it to Walter."
"It's just that it's a Kryptonian name; we try not to advertise the fact that it's Emma's middle name," added Lois by way of explanation.
They loaded the items which Karen had brought out into the back of the Cherokee behind the rear seat, then they all trooped into the house for the final load. As they passed an end table in the sitting room, Karen gestured to a portrait photo of Emma, wearing a dress of immaculate white. "See, there's Walter's 'angel.' I think he'll keep that picture forever." She smiled at Emma, who blushed slightly.
"It wasn't a big deal."
Karen sobered. "Oh yes it was. You saved my husband's life. *That's* a big deal." She put an arm around Emma's shoulders as they walked into the kitchen for the final pile of gear.
At the door, Karen turned to lock up the house while Lois and Emma placed the final items in the Jeep and closed the hatch. "Now we just pick up Gracie, and we're on our way."
"I can't wait to meet her. If she's like Emma, she must be adorable."
"She's *not* adorable. Sometimes she can be a —" Emma stopped at a look from her mother.
"Oho!" grinned Karen. "Definitely sisters, hmm?"
Clark leaned back in the front passenger seat of the four-by-four as Walter drove them at a comfortable clip down the straight country road. He closed his eyes and tried to count the different smells of the farm country through which they were driving. He had named several species of wildflower and field weed to himself, when they passed a field where a number of cattle were grazing. The odor was overpowering. He opened an eye to see a farmer working with shovel and pitchfork to make a high manure pile even higher. Whew! It was…
"Mmm-mmm. Smell that dairy air!" said Walter.
Clark stared at him, and then dissolved into mirth. "*You*," he said between chuckles, "were obviously raised on a farm. Talk about a phrase with a double-meaning…"
Walter grinned back at him. "Nah. But I was raised in a country town, and there were a lot of farms nearby. I enjoy the smells of the outdoors."
"So do I," said Clark. "But there *are* limits!"
"So. You from the country?"
"I was raised in Kansas. In a town called Smallville, which earned its name. My folks have a farm there. We usually had one or two cows, a horse, some pigs and chickens; but mostly we farmed hay and seed crops. My dad's getting along in years, so my folks lease the land out now, and live off the proceeds."
"Krypton to Metropolis by way of Kansas. That's quite a side trip. I remember Emma telling about it. How old were you when Krypton was destroyed?"
"Of course Mom and Dad don't know my exact birthday; but I was only a few months old when they found my spaceship, and pulled some strings to have me adopted." He heaved a deep sigh. "Walter, I couldn't have happened across a more wonderful set of parents, not if I'd planned it."
"Did you come straight to Metropolis after high school?"
"Oh, no. I spent a summer working for the Smallville Press, then attended Midwestern U. After a journalism degree from there, I traveled a lot; decided to see the world."
"A wanderlust, hmm?"
"Well, it started out that way, but during my teenage years I had discovered my superpowers, and I always tried to help out if there was trouble. Problem was, my super-helping would get noticed, and then I'd have to move on to avoid being recognized."
"You must have gotten around a *lot*."
"Suffice to say, I can order dinner in three hundred forty-seven dialects." He grinned as Walter's eyebrows went up. "I even worked at newspapers here and there. But I didn't find what I was looking for until I followed my old college professor's advice and visited Metropolis. There I found my perfect job, at The Daily Planet…and my soul-mate: Lois Lane."
"And a way to help without being recognized. You know, the tights and cape really are the perfect disguise for you."
"Yeah. It was Lois who gave me the idea, though she didn't realize it at the time. I got my business suit dirty trying to rescue a guy from a maintenance tunnel. She saw how messy I looked, and suggested that I keep a change of clothes at work. That gave me the idea for the costume. Mom developed the design, and she provides the suits for me; and so far, nobody except Perry has caught on that Clark Kent, in a 'change of clothes,' is really the guy from Krypton." Then he looked at Walter. "Nobody, that is, until you."
"Yeah, but that was due to a slip that even you couldn't have foreseen. If I hadn't seen my 'guardian angel' disappear over that little hill, and then *you* disappear over that same hill immediately after, I would never have picked up on it."
"Don't belittle your abilities. You're a sharp guy, Walter, or Lois and I would never have recommended you to Perry."
"Well, you…" Walter paused, and then pointed ahead. "Hey, isn't that the sign that Perry said to watch for? It's not very big, is it?"
"Nope, but that's definitely it. I wish he'd found one that wasn't inside a farmer's fence. It's kinda hard to see through the rails." Clark dragged out the instructions. "It says we turn right at the end of the field that the sign's in, and then go eight miles further. He says there's another sign saying 'White' tacked on a tree at that point; we just turn down the drive, and a few minutes later it takes us right to the cabin. He says that his cabin's the only one around there."
"Sounds easy enough. I expect Lois and Karen won't have a problem."
"They won't. Lois's ability to navigate around Metropolis can rival any cab driver's; she won't have any trouble out here."
They were coming to the end of the field. Walter slowed and turned onto the gravel road they found there, and they continued for a while in comfortable silence.
"So you're Gracie, hmm?" asked Karen over her shoulder. She noticed that Emma, who was sitting behind her mother, was staring out the window, pointedly ignoring this conversation.
"Yup," said Gracie. "I'm five," she added.
"Do you have a middle name?" asked Karen, wondering if she were about to hear another Kryptonian name.
"It's 'Martha.' I'm Gracie Martha Kent." She said it with an air of dignity and pride that made Karen smile.
"Well, I'm happy to meet you, Gracie Martha Kent. Didn't I hear that your grandma is named Martha? Your daddy's mom?"
"Yuh. She lives in *Kansas*. With my grampa."
"I guess Clark and I will be in a lot of trouble if we don't have another girl," Lois interjected. "My mom definitely wants a granddaughter named after her."
"Are she and your kids close?"
"Not really; Mom doesn't usually have time for young people." She started to explain further, and then realized that Karen didn't need to hear all about her dysfunctional parents. She added, "Actually, she's only tended them a few times; one of those times, coincidentally, was when Walter introduced you to us and Emma. That's why you haven't met Gracie before now."
"Well, Gracie, that's…"
"Never mind," said Emma. "She's *asleep*. She goes to sleep in cars all the time!" Her voice reflected disdain.
Karen turned to Lois and grinned. "Sounds like you have a typical family, with typical kids…" Then she realized who she was talking to, and blushed. "Boy, did I ever get *that* wrong…"
Lois grinned back at her. "No, you got it right. Except for a few 'optional extras,' we *are* pretty typical. It's just that Clark and I have these really strenuous jobs at The Daily Planet; they take a lot of time. And, of course, Clark's second job is *really* strenuous…"
"How do you cope with that, anyway? Doesn't that put a strain on your home life?"
"Yes, of course it does. But we both recognize that we're an unusual family, with unusual responsibilities. And we love each other, and we figure that nothing's worth risking that. So we adapt."
"You guys are amazing. Walter and I have only been married for a couple of months, and we're already having difficulties 'adapting.'"
"Oh?" Lois glanced at Karen, genuinely interested.
"Well, Walter has this need to take care of me. He's worked hard to keep his folks' home neat and in good repair, so I'd be comfortable in it once we were married. He told me he was really hesitant at first about taking the job with the Planet, since it represented an initial cut in pay, and he wanted to make sure that his income would cover our needs…"
"But what about your income? I presume you'll be getting a job, now that you've finished school — at least until children come along…"
"But that's just *it*!" said Karen, obviously frustrated. "I just spent four years training for a career in nursing — and I'm a *good* nurse; I'm really good at what I do. I *want* to have that training pay off for me! And, if the income from it helps out our family, well, fine! But Walter's set against it." Lois turned to stare at her.
They were driving past a large, open field, but they were so earnestly engaged in this conversation that they failed to notice a sign, which was partially obscured by fence rails anyway. They drove on.
"It seems like we should have seen it by now," said Lois worriedly sometime later. "We've been on this road a long time…"
"What's that ahead? There on the right…"
"Well, it definitely *was* a sign. Once." The sign, just inside a field, had been held up by two posts; one post had been sheared off, and it and the sign were now lying face down on the plowed ground.
"I don't know about you, but I'm not walking through all that plowed dirt to try and turn over an old sign. If this is the right place, there'll be a road leading to the right at the end of this field." She sped up.
Sure enough, there was a dirt road leading parallel to the fence at the end of the field. Lois slowed down and turned onto it.
They had been driving for nearly half an hour on the dirt road, and it was getting narrower and less well-maintained. They had searched in vain for the sign marking Perry's driveway. Finally, it appeared that the track had degraded into an old logging road cut into the side of a hill, leaving them no hope of turning the Jeep around until the road widened, or until the terrain leveled out more. The sun was nearly down and, shaded as they were by the hills around them, Lois was about ready to turn on the headlights.
The wobble in the steering was getting worse; the car seemed to shimmy after each bump and rut in the road. "Um, listen," said Lois, "would you mind taking a look in the glove box? I think there's a Forest Service map of this area in there somewhere." She reached up and switched on the map light.
There was a pause. "Unfortunately," said Karen, swallowing a few times, "I'm getting a little motion sick. Maybe if we could pull over for a minute…"
"Pull over where? This isn't any more than a dirt track, with steep slopes on both sides of us."
"Yeah, but the steep slope on my side goes *down*, not up. There's quite a hill over here. It's not a sheer drop by any means, but it's close enough for my taste."
Lois rolled her window part way down, hoping that some fresh air would be helpful. Meantime, feeling somewhat sick from looking out her window, Karen glanced out the windscreen to the upward slope on Lois's side of the vehicle — and gasped in horror. An enormous boulder, more than two feet across, was bounding down the graded slope toward them. Its path would intersect theirs just as it reached the road. She screamed and pointed.
At the same moment Lois caught the movement out of the corner of her eye, slammed her foot on the brake, and started to reflexively turn the wheel to the right.
It was not enough. The boulder slammed into the side of the Jeep, just ahead of the driver's door, with a tremendous crash.
*BANG*! The driver's-side airbag suddenly inflated, pinning Lois to her seatback, her arms against her, and also pinning the steering wheel so that the Cherokee continued to drift to the right of the road. Instinctively, with the airbag pressing hard against her face and chest, Lois kept her foot jammed down on the brake pedal, but the car was going too fast to stop short of the edge.
Karen screamed again as the Jeep went over the embankment and started down the slope. The slight angle of the front wheels toward the downward side prevented the vehicle from rolling onto its side, but despite the pressure of Lois's foot on the brake the car was picking up speed. It suddenly began jouncing wildly as the hard, dry soil of the slope gave way to a rockslide. As the car pelted over the slide, Karen screamed a final time as she saw that they were headed directly toward two automobile-sized rocks jutting out of the ground, about five feet apart, fifty yards further down the rocky slope. The Jeep bore down on this target, clearing the bottom of the slide, and miraculously remaining upright. Instead of ploughing into one of the boulders, it neatly headed into the space between them; but the gap was not wide enough. There was a shriek of metal as the Jeep was jerked violently to a halt, wedged between the boulders. Karen's head was thrown forward, then sideways hard against her window, and in a flash of pain, she descended into darkness.
Gracie had woken to Karen's first scream, and she and Emma were squealing in fright as the vehicle descended the slope, and were then slammed against their seatbelts and shoulder harnesses as the juggernaut was brought to an abrupt and painful halt between the two monoliths.
Suddenly, with the end of the plunge, the noise and chaos around them ceased, as — from surprise — did their wailing. They slowly turned to look at each other, ready to renew their wails. But there was a sudden resurgence of sound as the rockslide behind them, pounded by the Jeep's recent descent, abruptly broke loose from its tenuous grip on the hillside. Thousands of rocks, large and small, began slipping — or bounding — down the hill toward them. The largest of these ploughed into the two rocky supports, or into the back of the Jeep with repeated *bangs*, crushing its metal shell forward several inches. Amazingly, none made it all the way through the safety glass of the rear window. But these all gradually formed a dike, or barricade, behind the car so that when the main body of rubble caught up with them, it simply flowed up and over the roof and upper sides of the car, sliding into the spaces between it and the upright boulders, and producing a deafening screech of rock against metal as it slid forward over the roof, the windscreen, and the hood of the Cherokee until, its energy spent, the slide growled to a stop of its own accord. As the dust gradually drifted away in the slight breeze, there remained no sign that a car had ever been there.
"It's been a little over eight miles. The sign ought to be around here somewhere," said Walter a little anxiously.
"It's just ahead, around the bend."
"Thought you'd never been up here."
"Oops," said Clark. "Sorry, bad habit. I can see it through the trees — I mean *through* the trees." He grinned apologetically.
Walter grinned back at him. "Yep, I can see how you could get in trouble trying to explain that one away."
"But, you know, Walter, it's nice to just — sometimes — be able to let down, be myself. Any more, I can do it only around Lois and my folks. And Perry. But even then, there's usually someone else around, and I have to watch myself." Clark took a deep breath. "This really *is* going to be a relaxing get-away."
They rounded the bend and came to the sign. Turning down the winding drive, they continued for five more minutes, and then emerged into a spacious meadow; the cabin was just ahead.
"Not a bad place," said Walter. "It's a lot larger than I thought it would be."
"It's got two bedrooms, one of them with two double beds. That's more than enough room for Lois and me and the kids. It'll also give you and Karen some comfort and privacy. I guess Perry's feeling bad that he didn't use it more when his family was younger. I can see them having a great time up here."
"He's divorced, then?" asked Walter as they got out and began unloading their gear from the middle and back of the vehicle.
"Alice finally made him choose between The Daily Planet and her. He's still hoping that one day they can resolve their differences. But it's been quite a few years; he's not holding out much hope anymore."
"After waiting so long for Karen to finish school and come back to Metropolis so we could be married, I can't see how two people who love each other could ever stand to be apart — especially for the rest of their lives." Walter set his burdens down on the long railed porch.
"I guess it's a matter of juggling priorities. Lois and I are constantly having to adjust and compensate so that our duties outside the family don't damage the family itself. To us, our careers — including my Superman duties — are more than just careers; we hope we're making a difference in the world. But at the same time, what good will that difference do us if we let our family fall apart?"
He placed the last of the boxes on the porch and unlocked the front door. "Now, you'll need to stand back for a bit. I brought up some cleaning supplies; I'm going to go over the place and clean it up some. Why don't you go down to the shed and try to get the generator started."
Walter blinked as Clark became a blur. As he headed for the shed with the key and can of gasoline Clark had handed him, he could hear the sound of a whistling wind emanating from the house.
As the light bulb inside the shed fluttered to life, Walter emerged to find a colored blur flashing toward him, which shortly resolved itself into Clark. "Man, that was *really* fast. Now if only the surfaces you just washed down could dry that fast, we could…uh, what's wrong, buddy?" he finished, becoming aware of Clark's expression.
"Um, I don't know, exactly. Sometimes I get these 'feelings' about Lois. Like she's in some kind of trouble. Just a minute ago, it felt like she was having some kind of terrific trauma. But now it's stopped, and everything feels normal."
"Are these feelings…um…are they usually pretty reliable?" Walter asked as they headed back to the cabin.
"Not always; but I've learned not to ignore them."
"Why not just give her a call? Make sure everything's okay?"
"Perry says this place is too isolated for cell phone reception. Still, I guess it couldn't hurt to try."
Karen gradually became aware of pain. It seemed to come from two sources. The right side of her head was throbbing with each beat of her heart. The other pain was centered in her left wrist, and it too throbbed, but with a much more irregular beat. She slowly opened her eyes to find herself staring down at the wrist. Lois had her arm in a tight grip with her right hand, and was intermittently digging her fingernails into Karen's forearm.
She could hear Gracie repeatedly begging for Lois to hold her. Emma was making no sound.
"I'm sorry, Sweetie; I told you that Mommy can't hold you right now. Mommy's *hurt*!" Karen recognized the ragged sound of near-panic in Lois's voice. She reached over with her right hand and gave Lois's hand a gentle squeeze. Lois responded with a deep sigh. "I was beginning to think you'd never wake up."
Karen glanced around. The interior of the Cherokee was dark except for the illumination provided by the map light. The windscreen was a mass of cracked and crazed glass through which could be seen a wall of rock, gravel and dirt. She looked out her passenger-side window to find the same scene, although this window was bowed in slightly toward her. She turned toward Lois and her breath caught in disbelief. Lois was covered to mid- chest with rubble, which sloped up to her partially-open window. A nearly-deflated airbag was resting atop the pile, still attached to the steering column, which was buried in rubble so that only about half of the steering wheel was visible. Some of the rubble had spilled across the car, and had buried Karen's legs to above her ankles.
"What happened? I remember us heading down the embankment and then bouncing over some ground that looked like a rockslide. Then we rolled into the space between two huge boulders, and that's the last I remember."
"That's more than I saw. I had this airbag against my face all the way down. I think it broke my left arm when it deployed. I heard us hit something; then I guess I passed out from the pain. When I came to, we were covered with this stuff. Emma said that the mountain slid down on top of us. Maybe she's right; in any case, we're buried under a landslide."
Karen's triage training kicked in. "How is everyone? How are you faring? You don't sound too good, Lois."
"I'm not. Besides a broken arm, I have no feeling from about the waist down. And I think I must be hemorrhaging inside somewhere. I've been getting weaker and weaker for the past while." From her pallid skin, which was covered with a sheen of perspiration, Karen suspected that this was indeed the case. Lois was obviously going into severe shock.
There was another squeeze on Karen's wrist as Lois continued speaking. "Karen, the air's giving out. I don't know how much longer we have. I don't know how much longer *I* have." Her nails bit into Karen's arm and she turned to stare intently into her eyes. "Karen, it's up to you. You have to find a way to save the children."
"But how? I can't…"
"Yes, you *can*. It's up to you," she repeated. She took a deep, labored breath. "Save my babies." The intensity in her eyes began to fade, and the ferocity of her grip on Karen's forearm lessened. "And tell Clark that … that I lo…" Her eyes glazed over, and she slumped forward against her shoulder restraint, unconscious.
Only Karen's ER training kept her from succumbing to panic at that moment. She slowly took several deep breaths, noticing in passing that there was a strange odor in the air, probably the result of the airbag's deployment. She began attempting to remove her feet from the rubble under which they were buried, but found that they were securely pinned. She reached up and felt the lump on the right side of her temple. It felt bruised and tender, but although she was in pain, she didn't think that she was concussed.
She undid her lap belt and shoulder restraint, and found that she was able to turn around somewhat. She looked toward the rear seat to find Emma staring quietly back at her. "Did my mama die?"
"No, honey, of course not!" Karen reassured her. "She's just unconscious from the pain." To reassure herself, she took Lois's hand in hers and quickly felt for a pulse. It was weak and thready and a bit fast, but it was there.
"It means that she fainted. She passed out."
"You mean like getting knocked out? Like they do to crooks on TV?"
Karen smiled at her in spite of the situation. Things, in her mind, were beginning to return to some level of normalcy. "Yeah, that's about what it means." She gave Emma a wink.
"Is she gonna be all right?"
Karen's smile faded. "I honestly don't know. First we need to get out of this mess and get her to a doctor. Then we'll see." She looked intently at Emma. "First, though, there are some things we need to do. And I'm going to need some *super* help. Do you know where I can find a guardian angel?" She winked again.
Emma began to smile back. But then she looked around — at the wrinkled roof, the crazed glass of the windows, the dark interior of the back of the Jeep — and she began to feel the weight of what was being asked. She began to panic. "I don't know *how*! I can't…"
Karen recalled Lois's words to her. "Yes, you *can*." She swallowed; everything was riding on this. She took a deep breath. "Honey, I'm not asking *Emma*. I'm asking Lara. I'm asking…" What was that silly name Walter had called her? "I'm asking *Superlady*."
At the sound of the name, Emma blinked and her eyes grew round. Then, after a moment, she nodded, and Karen silently released a breath.
"First of all, are either of you two hurt?"
Emma looked at Gracie, who was still plaintively calling for her mommy, and then back at Karen. "No; Mama made me check us both when she woke up after we crashed. We're okay."
"Good. All right, first order of business is that we have to find a way to get some fresh air in here. Can you tell me how much stuff is on top of us?"
Emma glanced at Gracie. "Gracie doesn't know."
Karen's brow furrowed at this apparent non sequitur. Then it clicked. "About you, you mean?"
"Yeah. And about Daddy."
Gracie's plaintive cries had ceased, and Karen imagined that she was staring at Emma. "Well, she's gonna have to find out now if we want to get out if this. All right?"
Emma looked doubtful for a moment. Then she glanced around again at their predicament. "Okay."
Karen decided that some good old-fashioned diversion therapy was needed. "Gracie, can you hear me?"
There was a hiccupy sniffle from behind her. "Yeah."
"Okay, I want you to watch your big sister. She's gonna show you some stuff that'll knock your socks off!" She winked again at Emma, who slowly grinned back at her.
Emma unbuckled her seatbelt and levitated herself into the air. Karen heard a gasp from Gracie. "How'd you *do* that?!"
Emma actually giggled. "Tell you in a minute." She turned to Karen, while still hovering over her seat. "Now what?"
Karen glanced again at the windscreen. "Do you still have x-ray vision?"
Emma sat back down in her seat. "Yeah, I've been lookin' around while we've been stuck here."
"How much rock and rubble is sitting on top of us?"
"Um…I dunno how to tell you."
"Can you show me with your hands? How deep is it? Is it a lot…" she held her hands several feet apart, "…or a little bit?" She demonstrated by holding a finger and thumb an inch apart.
"It's not all the same. Right above us, there's about this much." Emma held her hands about ten inches apart.
Karen exhaled; maybe there was some hope. "Is there any place where the roof is torn open, where we might make a hole through the stuff?"
"There's that." Emma pointed, apparently to a spot a few inches directly behind Karen's head. Karen, by sliding over next to the door, managed to look over her shoulder. A piece of the Jeep's roof had been pierced and torn downward. There was a flap about four inches wide, hinged at the front, bent downward to allow an opening about three inches high at the back of the rip.
"Can you reach behind the rear seat and get that big soup pot that was on the top of the camping stuff? Maybe we can scoop some of the rock and dirt out through the hole into that."
Emma again levitated off her seat to the accompaniment of another gasp from Gracie, and looked over the back seat. "It's here, but it's full of stuff." She started emptying out the contents.
"Wait; we might need some of those things. Don't let them fall down behind the seat where you can't get at them. What's in it?"
Emma named several items, including Karen's old long-sleeved jacket from college.
A thought crossed Karen's mind. "Are you invulnerable?"
"You mean like Superman? No, Daddy says I don't have that power yet. He hopes I'll get it real soon."
"Okay, then you'll need to put the jacket on. It's leather, and it'll protect your skin from getting cut on that metal. Gracie, I need you to help her with this job. Can you do that?"
There was silence from behind her. Then Gracie said, "Okay."
"Good. Gracie, you need to hold that pot under the hole while Emma tries to scoop out the rocks and dirt. If you hold the pot against my seat, maybe I can help hold onto it." She turned to face forward, sitting squarely in the seat, and reached both hands back over her shoulders. She felt the lip of the pot thrust into her hands and grabbed hold of it.
"There's something in the pockets of the jacket," Emma said.
"Oh, right. Those are my leather driving gloves. You'd better put one on your scooping hand, so you don't scrape it on the rocks." She asked Emma to help Gracie unbuckle her seat belt, then had Gracie lean forward to hold up the pot while Emma hovered over them. "Everybody ready? Let's see what we can do."
Emma began pulling rubble out of the hole, and dropping it in the pot. Karen could hear a continual drizzle of sand and dirt falling in of its own accord.
"Wait!" cried Gracie. "It's getting too heavy!"
Karen had to agree; her fingers were cramping with the effort of holding the weight of the pot. "Emma, can you take it back to the back and dump it? Try not to pour it over our stuff; we don't know what we'll need from back there."
They began a routine of filling and re-filling the pot, while Emma scraped away at the rubble. They were fortunate that all of the material above them was small enough to drag, or pry, down through the hole — but then Emma stopped. "It won't work."
Karen's heart sank. "What's wrong?"
"There's this big rock that's sitting right on top of the hole. I tried, but it's so big I can't lift it or push it away!"
"I gather you don't have super-strength?"
Emma grew petulant. "Don't you think I'd 'a got us out if I did? I'm not *really* Superlady." She dropped to her seat and sat with her lips compressed tightly together.
Karen sat silently for a moment in thought. Then she said, "Maybe you are, but you just don't know it yet. Gracie, there's not much dirt in this load. Why don't you dump it behind the back seat while I talk to your sister." Gracie silently complied, as Karen turned to face Emma as best she could.
"Honey, do you remember that day at the picnic when we were…"
"What picnic?" piped up Gracie.
"Tell you in a minute!" Emma and Karen repeated in unison — and broke into laughter.
"Anyway," Karen went on, "your mom was telling me what it was like to fly with Superman…"
"Mommy really *flew* with Superman?" asked Gracie in awe.
Karen said, "One…two…three…" and Emma joined in, "Tell you in a minute!" All three had a good laugh.
Karen went on, "Anyway, I asked her if he always had to carry her in his arms. She said that it wasn't like that; that gravity just seemed to shut down when she flew with him. He could just hold her by the hand and they could still fly together. She said that it was like she was part of his body, and that wherever he went, she just went along.
"Emma, do you think that you could do that? Say, with Gracie?"
"But when I saved Walter from drowning when his boat tipped over, I couldn't lift him out of the water…"
"When did you do *that*?!"
Karen and Emma began, "One…two…thr—"
"Forget it!" grumped Gracie, and Emma giggled.
"Emma, I don't think it's the same. You were trying to *lift* Walter, like he was just a heavy weight. What if you had thought of him as being like a part of yourself, and simply flew him along with you?"
Emma thought this over. Then she pulled off the glove, turned to Gracie, and said, "Gimme your hand."
"No way!" said Gracie in a wary voice.
"It'll be fun! If it works," she added.
Karen saw Emma lean forward, apparently to take Gracie's hand in hers. She saw Emma float up off the seat. There was a pause.
"Cool!" said Gracie. "This is *so* rad!"
She gave them a few seconds to experiment. The air was *really* getting bad; probably much of their exuberance and silliness was due to hypoxia. She had to get this resolved. "Okay, girls, that's enough—" there was an objection from Gracie, "—for *now*. Right now, we've got to get this hole opened up if we want to keep breathing. Emma, I want you to *stand* up — don't fly — and reach up through the hole, and put your bare hand against that big rock." She waited until Emma had complied. "Now, I want you to *fly* up a little — you and the rock. Think of it as part of you."
She heard a muffled, grating noise from the roof.
"It's *working*," Emma said in awe.
"Now, *fly* it over to the side a few inches. Then jerk your hand out from under it really fast." There was a pause as Emma moved the rock, watching it intently through the roof of the car. There was a hard *thud*.
Emma carefully withdrew her hand and sat down in the seat. "I did it. I did it," she said again in wonder.
"Way to *go*, Superlady!" said Karen, and Emma grinned from ear to ear. Karen reached back and placed her hand under the hole. She could feel the cooler night air beginning to flow down as convection carried the warmer interior air out. Well, one problem solved.
"Has it been a minute?" asked Gracie grumpily.
"Yeah, I guess you've earned an explanation," Karen called back to her. "How about it, Superlady?"
Emma grinned. Then she sobered. "How's Mama? She's still alive, isn't she?"
"Of course she is," Karen said. But she reached to take Lois's wrist. The pulse was there — but it was growing weaker.
"Superman's *not* our daddy! *Daddy's* our daddy," Gracie was maintaining loudly.
"Sure, Daddy's our daddy. But he's Superman too, when he wants to be!" Emma maintained just as stoutly.
Karen was afraid that that a minor Donnybrook was brewing, so she interjected, "Gracie, it works like this: when your daddy hears that someone's in trouble, he puts on this costume — like at Halloween — and he goes and saves them."
"Yeah," Emma threw in. "You know when Daddy gets up in the middle of dinner and says he forgot to buy ice cream, or when he has to go back to work to get some files? He's really going out to be Superman, and help somebody who's in trouble!"
"But how does he *know*?" Gracie asked reasonably.
"He's got really good hearing. He can hear people yell for help clear on the other side of Metropolis."
Gracie seemed to consider this. "Could he hear *us*? If we yelled real loud?"
It was quiet for a few moments as both Emma and Karen considered this stunning suggestion.
Karen said, "I don't think he could hear us under these tons and tons of rock and dirt; not unless he was somewhere close by. We're more than twenty miles away from where Walter and your daddy think we are; there are a couple of mountains between us and them."
Nevertheless, it was Bedlam within the Jeep for the next few minutes as both children and Karen shouted themselves hoarse. Emma even tried yelling up through the hole in the roof, to no avail. Karen had them change their yells to 'Help, Superman!' but with no results.
"If he could hear us," said Karen, "he would have been here by now. We're just in the wrong place, a place where he isn't looking."
Emma said quietly, "Maybe he's not even looking for us yet. Have we been here a long time?"
Karen held her watch up to the map light. "We're about two hours overdue. They'll be worried about us by now. He and Walter will start looking for us soon, if they haven't already." She didn't add that she saw no reason why they would be searched for in this direction. She went on, "Emma, would you be able to see your daddy if he flew over us? How well can you see?"
"Yeah. I can see an awful long way away, if I want to. But I've been watching the sky a lot, and I haven't seen him. I'll keep watching," she added after a moment.
"So how come *you* can fly?" persisted Gracie, returning to their earlier subject.
"'Cause I'm Superman's daughter. And so are you."
Karen decided that a quick genetics lesson was in order. "Gracie, have you started school yet?"
"Um, I'm in preschool. But in the fall I'll go to kindergarten," she added with a hint of pride.
"Well, you know how your friends in preschool look a little like their parents? Like if a little boy or girl has blond hair, his parents sometimes do too?"
"Elwood has red hair, and lots of freckles. He looks just like his mommy."
"That's because of something called genetics. Children are born with many of the same traits as their parents."
"Yeah, like *superpowers*!" Emma added triumphantly.
"What's superpowers?" asked Gracie, spoiling the effect.
"That's like me being able to fly, because Daddy can fly."
"Um — how long ago?"
"How long ago what?"
"How long ago did you find out you could fly?"
"Nearly two years ago."
"*Two years*?! And you never *told* me?!" Gracie was livid.
"I never told anybody, not even Mama and Daddy. Not until I saved Walter." Karen saw Emma lower her eyes uncomfortably.
"But *why*?" exclaimed Gracie, unable to understand why anyone would keep such a wondrous ability a secret.
"Um, when I found out I could fly, I was scared. I thought if I told them, I would have to go right out and be Superman, just like Daddy. But after I saved Walter, Daddy and Mama said I was too young. They said I should wait 'til I grew up first."
Gracie was quiet for a while. Then she said, a little wistfully, "Will *I* ever learn to fly?"
Emma started to answer, but was interrupted by a sudden growl from her stomach — which, in the confined space of the car, all could hear. Gracie giggled. Emma looked at Karen. "I guess I'm hungry," she said apologetically.
Karen immediately realized that she was being remiss. They needed to keep up their strength, if only to help keep up their spirits. She started to turn further toward Emma, but found that the strain on her knees, back, and neck while her feet were held in place made the process too painful. Then she glanced up and mentally chastised herself as she spotted the rearview mirror.
She reached over and adjusted the mirror — and shuddered a little as she caught the view to the rear of the vehicle. The rear window was a mass of small pebbles of glass, held together only by the thick adhesive membrane between the two layers of safety glass. Large chunks of sharp rock were poking through in two or three places where the window had taken the pressure of the slide. The rear passenger windows on both sides were similarly pebbled. It was a wonder that the interior of the car had not been inundated by the slide. Then she glanced sideways at Lois's unconscious form and realized that, to some extent, it had been. She quietly reached for Lois's wrist and checked her pulse again. It was growing still weaker.
"Emma," she said, "why don't you look back there and see if you can spot where the treats are? I know that the main boxes of food went up in the other car with Walter and your dad, but I brought a bag of candy bars and other treats; let's see what you can find."
Emma quickly located the sack of treats, and — with care — lifted it out and handed it forward to Karen. Karen passed out a candy bar to each child and took one herself.
"I'm thirsty," said Gracie.
Karen reached into the bag and produced a container of bottled water, which she opened. She passed it back. "Only *one* mouthful apiece," she said. "We need that water; it's all we have. Wait until you finish your candy bar before you take it." She didn't add that if they drank more, they would have the added complication of needing to go to the bathroom.
Once the water was drunk, Karen began to re-cap the bottle. Emma said, "How about Mama? Shouldn't we give her some?"
"Honey, I wish we could; I know she needs it. But when a person's unconscious, they can't swallow, and the water would just make her choke. That's why we can't give her anything to eat, either." She tightened the cap and dropped the bottle into the paper bag of snacks and placed the bag at her feet. She heard Gracie begin to fret for her mommy. Time for more diversion. "Now then," she commenced, "Emma, what's it like outside? What can you tell us?"
"Um — it's bright, 'cause the moon just came up. It's a full moon." She looked around through different areas of the Jeep's roof. "But I don't think it'll be bright very long; there's lots of clouds over that way." She pointed vaguely to the right. Karen mentally oriented them; the moon had to be rising in the east. That would mean that the clouds were coming from the north. It could mean a storm. In any case, an overcast sky would make it difficult for anyone to spot them — even if there were anything to see from the air. They needed to turn their attention back to getting out of here.
"What's the area like around us? Are we in the middle of a lot of woods?"
"There's woods all around us; but they're a long way off; almost as far as the end of my street." She continued her panoramic survey. "We're almost down at the bottom of the hill. The rockslide is mostly behind us, up the hill. Except for the two big rocks on both sides of the car, there's nothing — just a big field. And a really tall tree right in front of us. I think it's dead," she added.
Karen considered this. They were incredibly lucky to have been stopped by being wedged between the two rocks. If they had rammed head-on into the tree, one or more of them could have been instantly killed.
So they were out in the open. If they could somehow arrange a signal, maybe they could be spotted. "Did we bring any Glow Sticks?"
"What's a glow stick?"
"It's about this long, and when you bend it, something inside breaks, and it starts to glow." At Emma's confused look, she added, "Kids sometimes carry them with them when they go out on Halloween Night so cars can see them."
"I know what they are!" said Gracie. "Daddy bought a whole box of 'em so we could play with them at the cabin!"
Karen wanted to yell, 'Yes!' "Emma, see if you can spot them in the gear behind the seat."
After only a moment, Emma reported back. "They're not here. They must be in the other car."
Karen's spirits plunged as quickly as they had risen. "Oh. I had hoped that we could light a few of them and push them up through the hole in the roof, if Superman flew over, to attract his attention."
"We wouldn't have to do that," said Emma. "If he was in the sky above us, we could just shout up through the hole and he'd hear us."
Karen realized that she was right. The problem, now that the hole was opened, was not to signal Superman once he was here, but to get him here in the first place. They would have to come up with something else.
Walter shoved his plate back. "Man, Clark, that was fantastic, especially for cabin-style cooking. Is there anything you *can't* do?"
Clark shrugged apologetically. "You can't blame that on superpowers. I just happened to have the best cook in Smallville for a mom. She let me help her in the kitchen a lot, and I got to enjoy it. So I stuck with it; I guess some of her skill rubbed off. Now I really *like* to cook."
Walter grinned. "I can still remember Karen at the picnic last month, raving over your bacon-and-cornbread salad — and thinking it was Lois's — and telling her how *wonderful* she must be in the kitchen!" He chuckled again.
"Yeah, I guess Emma and I could have been a little more tactful; I still cringe when I think how much we teased her about it later." He sighed.
Walter gave him a sidelong glance. "You're still worried about them, aren't you?"
"Yeah, I am. After the phone couldn't get through from here, I tried to tell myself I was just being over-protective; that's what Lois would tell me, anyway." Clark sighed again. "But, Walter, that's what I do! I protect them — Lois and the kids. If I let anything happen to them…"
Walter glanced at his watch. "Yeah, they *are* a little bit overdue…"
"More than a little; they should have been here more than an hour ago, even if Lois had had to do a complete re-write on Perry's sidebar. And there was that wobble in the steering on the Jeep. What if something's come loose and they're stranded somewhere? They couldn't reach us up here." He stood up, looking apologetically at Walter. "I think I'm going to go look around for them." He started for the door.
"Clark…" He turned to see Walter getting to his feet. "My wife's there too. How about taking me with?"
Clark realized he was being remiss; Walter was probably a lot more worried than he had let on. "Sure; pardon me for being insensitive. Come on." He spun into the Suit and beckoned to Walter.
"Um…how do I do this?"
Clark motioned Walter to follow him out onto the porch. "The easiest way is probably side-by-side." He stepped over to Walter and put an arm around his waist. Walter wrapped an arm across Clark's shoulders and they lifted off.
"Okay, cherubs," said Karen, "we need to figure out a way to make a signal, so Superman knows we're down here. Emma, how about if you look through the back seat and tell me everything that you see there? Maybe there's something in our camping stuff that we can use…"
"What's cherubs?" Gracie wanted to know.
"One…two…" said Emma.
"No," Karen interjected. "That was fun once, but Gracie's a part of the team now. Right, Gracie?" At Gracie's determined affirmation, she continued. "We all need to contribute if we're going to figure this out. So, to answer your question…" What was it Gracie had asked? Oh, yeah… "A cherub is like a young angel, I guess. At least that's the way people think of them these days." Then she recalled her recent research into the subject and smiled to herself. Maybe they could have a little fun with this conversation. "Only when people used to talk about cherubs, they didn't call them 'cherubs.' They called them 'cherubims.'"
"Why?" Gracie immediately wanted to know.
"Well, I think 'cherub' is a word from the Hebrew language. In our language — English — when you want to say that there's more than one of a thing, you just stick the letter 's' on the end of the name. Like if you have more than one dog, you say 'dogs.' But in the Hebrew language, you put the 'im' sound on the end, instead of the 's'…"
"But that would make it 'cherubim!'" Said Emma. "You said 'cherubims.'"
"So I did. I think that when people translated the stories about cherubs into English, they must have put the 's' on, but forgot to take the 'im' off. So the result is 'cherubims.'"
Emma grinned, getting in to the mood of the conversation. "So how come you know so much about cherubs?"
"That's Walter's fault. He likes to refer to you as his guardian angel or, sometimes, as his personal cherub. I didn't know what a cherub was, so one day I did a web search on them, and found that they're mentioned a lot in the Old Testament."
"What's that?" Gracie asked.
"It's the story of the Hebrew people, and it has a lot of littler books in it. The Book of Genesis, for example, is the first place where cherubs are mentioned." Her expression took on a sly edge. "But from what it says, cherubs — or cherubims — are not the nice little angels we think about today. They were actually a pretty tough lot."
"Why? What does it say?" Emma appeared to be intensely interested, and Gracie's silence seemed to indicate the same.
"Well, for example, in the story of the Garden of Eden, when God became angry with Adam and Eve after they broke one of his commandments, he kicked them out of the garden. It says that he put 'cherubims and a flaming sword' at the east end of the garden so that they couldn't sneak back in."
"What's a 'flam'…"
"It means a long sword that's on fire," she said to Gracie. "It's a…" Karen stopped abruptly; and she slowly opened her mouth in wonder.
"What's the matter?" asked Emma after a while.
"I think…I think that a 'flaming sword' might just be our way out of here!" She was thinking furiously. "Emma, tell me what superpowers you already have."
"Why?" Emma asked a little suspiciously.
"Because this will only work if you happen to have the right one."
"Well, I can fly — but *everybody* knows that now!" She glanced grudgingly in Gracie's direction. "I'm super-fast, when I wanna be; and I can see a real long ways, and I can see through most anything…"
"Right; x-ray vision. What else?" asked Karen, trying mightily to suppress her excitement.
Karen felt as though she had been punched in the stomach. "That's *all*? What about heat vision?"
"Nope. Daddy tried to teach it to me, but he says I must just not be ready yet. Why?" she asked again.
Karen took a couple of deep breaths while she struggled to get her emotions under control. "See that tree out there?" She pointed at the rubble covering the windscreen, which she knew Emma could see through. "That tree would make a heck of a signal for Superman — if we could figure out how to set it on fire!"
"Oh." Emma now looked thoroughly miserable — as miserable as Karen felt.
After a moment, Karen said, "Listen, couldn't you at least *try* to do it? Maybe…"
"Karen, I practice *every day*! With Daddy helping! If I could do it, I'd know! I just can't, *okay*?"
The silence in the Jeep dragged on. Tears were leaking out of Emma's eyes. Karen was beginning to get her emotions under control, and was regretting pushing the child so hard. But they had been so *close*…
Karen sat very still. Then, not daring to hope, she said, "What did you say, Gracie?"
"I can do it. Make fire with my eyes."
Karen looked sideways at Emma, who was staring open-mouthed at Gracie. "No way… Why didn't you *tell* anybody? Why didn't you tell *me*?!"
"'Cause Elwood saw me do it once, and he said I was a freak. I didn't wanna be a freak, so I didn't tell."
"You did it in front of *Elwood*? From preschool?"
"Yeah. It was just a ball of paper. After I lit it on fire, I dropped it in a glass of water."
"But what if your teacher saw you?"
"But she didn't. See me. The water was all brown from our watercolors, so she couldn't tell."
Karen could contain herself no longer. "Let me get this straight. You can light a piece of paper on fire just by staring at it?"
"From how far away?" She quickly tore off one side of the bag of treats and crumpled it into a ball. "If I put this here on the dash like this, could you set it on fire from back there?"
She stared intently at Gracie's image in the mirror — and then jumped, startled, as Gracie's eyes abruptly glowed red. She looked down at the dash. The smoldering paper was bursting into flame even as she watched. She gasped — and then quickly swiped the burning paper off the dashboard onto the rubble near her feet. She hurriedly grabbed the water bottle from the torn bag and, removing the cap, carefully poured a portion of the water over the ball, extinguishing the flames. She sat there, staring blankly through the wispy veil of smoke at the dark windscreen.
"Guess what else I can do?"
Unbelievable. A whole family of *super*kinder. "What?"
"I can see through stuff. Just like Emma." Karen looked again in the mirror; Gracie was grinning smugly at Emma, whose expression was totally shell-shocked.
"Why didn't you *tell* me?" Emma repeated.
"I didn't wanna be a freak. But I'm not a freak; I'm Superman's daughter!"
Karen took another deep breath. "Well, okay then! Let's get this show on the road! Ladies, what — exactly — does the tree look like?"
"It's real tall…" said Emma.
"…and straight, like a Christmas tree…"
"…only it's dead; it's just got the trunk…"
"…yeah, with just a few skinny branches…"
"…and some of them have dead pine needles on 'em…"
"…but mostly the branches are broke off."
Karen was giddy at this display of the girls completing each other's sentences. Truly, genetics was at work here. "How tall is it?"
"I dunno how…"
"…to tell you," Emma finished. Then she and Gracie exchanged looks…and started to giggle.
"Well, I think we've just found another superpower. We could call it the Lois-and-Clark *super*babble!" Once everyone had finished laughing, she continued. "How far away is this tree? Could you put a car as long as this one between us and it?"
After some translation, it was agreed that the tree was about fifteen feet from the front of the car. "Now, both of you point to the top of the tree, *through* the roof."
After a little exercise in mental trigonometry, Karen concluded that the tree was truly gigantic — at least seventy, perhaps as much as one hundred feet high. The trunk, at the base, was at least two feet in diameter. And the top two-thirds of the tree was definitely visible through the hole in the roof. If they could set it ablaze, it would illuminate the whole hillside and would burn for a long time. They had their signal.
But, Emma reported, the clouds were moving in, and it looked like rain. They needed to get started.
"We've been over the entire length of the road twice!" observed Walter. "Shouldn't we have seen them by now?"
"Yes, if they're on this road," Superman responded. "What worries me is that they may have either missed a turn some place, or have broken down somewhere in Metropolis." He glanced at Walter. "The moon's coming up. How would you like a spectacular view?" He began to rise.
"Shouldn't we concentrate on finding them first?"
"I am. But to do that, I need more altitude. While I look around, you can be enjoying the scenery." He suited his actions to his words as they sped upwards.
Mile after mile slipped below them. "Clark, how come my ears aren't popping? And why isn't it getting a lot colder?"
"Lois has commented on the same thing; apparently there's an 'aura' which surrounds me and protects me. When someone flies with me, it seems to extend out to cover them, too. I know that anything within about a half-inch of my body is somehow shielded from air friction, or cold, or damage from fire, for example. I've found that when I rescue someone from a burning building, if I can keep in contact with that person and wrap my cape around them, not only are they protected, but so is the cape. But if I don't keep the cape close, it gets singed."
Their upward progress abated, and Walter looked around. "How high up are we?"
"At least fifty thousand feet; this is higher than the highest commercial jets fly. You can still breathe because of the 'aura.' No one on the ground could possibly see us, even in the daytime, unless they had telescopic vision and happened to be looking right at us.
"I'm going to need to concentrate pretty hard for the next few minutes; feel free to enjoy the scenery while I do," he added, and then was silent.
Walter looked out at the spectacular view. The full moon had recently risen, and bathed the scenes below in pale splendor. They must be able to see at least three counties, he thought. Near the horizon could be seen the myriad pinpoint lights and silhouetted towers of Metropolis, with tendrils radiating outward from it, where the interstates and major highways — lighted by constant rows of car headlights and taillights — snaked away into the distance.
He became aware that the scene was changing; Superman must be slowly rotating to cover all the points of the compass. He could make out a number of small towns as the urban areas of Metropolis gradually changed to countryside, and he could see the lights and buildings of these towns interspersed with fields and woods, with an occasional automobile heading down a lonely road.
As they slowly turned, he saw that, far below them, a mass of clouds was slowly making its way toward this part of the state. It would likely mean bad weather; and if the girls were out in it, they could have a difficult time of it.
Finally Superman spoke. "I can't see them. They must still be in Metropolis somewhere."
"Is there any chance you could have missed them?"
"I don't see how. I used both telescopic and x-ray vision; I've looked through trees and buildings. Walter, I scanned every detail, from the ground up, over an area fifty miles across. They're just not there." He sighed. "I think we'd better try Metropolis."
They were soon hovering over the city; and Clark was beginning a sweep of the area below them. After a moment he stopped. "This isn't going to work. It'll literally take hours to complete a scan of the city."
"Why, what's different here? Your scan of the country only took about ten minutes."
"Yes, but here there are skyscrapers with dozens of stories, underground parking garages, lots of warehouses and other buildings painted with lead paint — which I can't see through. I can't believe we came off without the cell phone!" He headed down toward a particular suburb.
"Where are we going?"
"Where I should have gone at the beginning — our townhouse. If Lois were trying to get in touch with me and she couldn't reach me by phone, and I was too far away for 'Help, Superman' to work, she would call home and leave a voicemail on our answering machine."
"How far can you hear, anyway?"
"Depends on what I'm listening for. If someone is in desperate need, or if they yell my name, I can hear them up to about twenty miles or so." He sighed. "But they could be beyond that, by quite a ways."
Shortly, they were hovering over the townhouse. "Aren't you going to go in?"
"No need. I can see that she hasn't left any notes, and the answering machine light isn't blinking. Well, I can think of only one other place they could have gone; we'll go there and try to phone them while we're at it."
"It's really going now," said Emma excitedly, looking out through the hole at the tree. The roar and crackle that they could all hear confirmed her words. "It's almost up to the top of the tree."
"Gracie, I'm so *proud* of you!" Karen said. "Oh, I wish I could see it!" she added a little wistfully.
"I'm so proud of me too," said Gracie, her image in the mirror sporting a smile which lighted up her whole face.
"Ya want to come back here and look?" asked Emma. "I could help you fly over the seat…"
"I wish I could, but my feet and ankles are buried in rocks. And there's not enough room for me to bend down to move them."
"I could do it for you," Emma said. Karen suspected that she might even be feeling a little jealous, having been scooped by her little sister in the heat-vision department. Though the offer had merit.
"Well, I *would* appreciate it. My feet have gone to sleep, and my ankles are starting to hurt a lot…"
"Just a minute…" said Emma. There was a blur, and she was hovering head-downward beside Karen's knees, the soup pot in one hand.
"Cool!" said Gracie.
"Uh — wait!! This is really important," Karen cautioned. "Whatever we do, we mustn't disturb the pile of rocks on your mom's lap. If we do, the whole pile could shift, and bring in an avalanche that could bury her even more!"
Emma glanced sideways at her mother's still form. "I'm really scared for her, Karen."
Karen reached around her and felt Lois's pulse. She was shocked at how weak it was growing. "I know, honey. Me too. Let's just get this done, and I can take a closer look at her."
Emma's gloved hand seemed to blur; there was a staccato clanging in the pot, and in under a second it was full.
"Do you want to go back there, and I can hand it back to you?" asked Karen.
"Nah. Now that you showed me how, I can just *fly* it back." And she was gone. Karen heard the pot's contents being dumped into a corner behind the rear seat. "Gracie, you need to stay down out of the way so I don't hit you."
"But I wanna watch!"
"It'll only take a minute. Then you can watch, okay?" True to her word, Emma had both of Karen's lower legs freed in short order.
Karen carefully moved her ankles, wriggled her toes, and flexed her knees. What had been numbness was quickly turning into the most painful bout of pins-and-needles she had ever experienced as the circulation to her lower legs and feet was restored. Thankfully, nothing seemed to be broken. There were a couple of scrapes where she was bleeding slightly, but nothing seemed to need immediate attention.
As Emma dumped the last pot load of dirt and rocks, the interior of the car again became quiet. Then there was a faint sound, barely audible above the muted crackle and hiss from the burning tree outside. As they all listened, it resolved itself into the repeated ringing of a phone.
"That's Mama's cell phone!" said Emma, from her seat behind her mother.
Karen looked hastily around, but saw no sign of Lois's purse. "Where is it? Can you see it?"
There was an extended silence. After a moment, Karen turned in her seat, to see Emma staring in fascination at the back of her mother's seat. She must be looking *through* the seat, at her mother's…
'Stupid, *stupid*!' thought Karen as she realized the direction of Emma's gaze. How could she, a trained nurse, have made such a blunder? "Emma! Emma, *look* at me!"
Emma's eyes slowly dragged themselves away from the back of the seat. They were wide in her pale face as she looked over at Karen. "Karen, I saw…"
"I *know* what you saw, Emma. But don't say it, okay?"
"It's something that not everyone needs to know."
Emma's eyes started to slide toward her little sister, then jerked back to lock with Karen's. "All right."
The ringing of the phone stopped.
"We need to find that. But just be careful what you look for, okay?"
Emma gulped, and then nodded. After a moment of gazing toward her mother's seat, she said, "It's down on the floor by the door. But the door's all bashed in…"
"I know. I thought it would be. Well, the phone's where we can't possibly get at it, not without bringing the whole rockslide in through that window. We'll just have to trust in our beacon."
Gracie, curiosity in her voice, asked, "Whatcha talkin' about?"
"Nothing," said Karen quickly, hoping to head off the emotional disaster which she foresaw, should Gracie's gaze seek out what Emma's had seen. "Gracie, can you see the sky?"
"Yeah, but it's all dark. 'Cept where the fire's shining on the clouds."
"I want you to sit over on this side of the car, behind me, and watch the sky. If your daddy comes, we need to know right away so we can call to him. Can you do that?"
"Awright." Gracie settled into her new assignment.
"Emma? I need you to hand me the leather jacket. I'm going to need to check your mom, and I don't want to kneel right on these sharp rocks on the seat." Emma handed up the jacket, which Karen doubled up and spread out over the rubble on the seat as best she could.
She knelt on the jacket, the rocks painfully gouging her knees, and reached toward Lois's wrist. She felt a trembling hand on her arm. She turned toward Emma to see her lip quivering in her white face. "It's stopped. Karen, it's stopped."
"*What*?" Karen grabbed wildly for Lois's wrist and felt frantically for a pulse. She couldn't find it. Emma was right. The heart had stopped. Immediately she was full on her knees, heedless of the pain. She leaned forward, bracing herself against the partially-exposed steering wheel, and began to administer CPR.
The rock pile began to shift.
"Emma!" she yelled. "Stop the rocks!"
"How?! I don't…"
"I don't *know*! Put your hands against the window and try to *fly* them back!"
The shifting stopped. Immediately, Karen continued with the CPR as best she could. She continued this for eight or ten minutes until she realized that she was virtually exhausted from the position which she was in. She sat up and looked at Emma, who was hovering above the rear seat, perspiration sheening her small face, and pressing her splayed fingers against the rubble above the lip of the window.
"Emma… Emma, honey…stop."
"No!" said Emma through clenched teeth. "I *won't* let it bury her…"
"Honey, there's nothing more we can do. There's nothing more *I* can do. Unless you can help me over the seat; maybe I can try this from behind…" Karen suddenly found herself virtually weightless. Emma had one hand against the rubble at the window and another on Karen's wrist. Stunned, she found herself floating over the high seatback, her foot grazing something soft. She looked down to see Gracie turned to face the far door, hands pressed tightly over her ears. '*I can't do this*,' she thought as she gazed at the pitiful scene around her.
As she settled into the seat and Emma released her grasp, she felt gravity return. She reached up in turn to grasp Emma's shoulder. "Honey, try easing back. Maybe the slide has stabilized."
"No." There was determination in Emma's voice.
"You have super-speed, right? You can be right back on the job if the rocks move again."
Emma didn't move for a moment; then she gradually removed her hands from the pile. It remained still. Then Emma was collapsed against her, shaking.
Karen carefully untangled herself from the girl and leaned forward, ready to reach forward over the seat so she could apply pressure to Lois's chest from her position behind her.
And the world fell apart. With a shrieking of rock against metal, the rockslide over and around them began to move again. She was barely aware of Emma zipping back to her position at the driver's window as Gracie screamed and dived toward her, throwing her arms around Karen's neck. After about ten seconds the rumbling ceased, and silence returned. She looked up to see Emma carefully removing her hands from the window. Nothing further happened.
Emma dropped back into the seat beside them, and Karen could feel her quiet sobs against her side. After a few moments, she looked around. The dust was settling and the map light — was it getting dimmer? — showed much the same scene as before.
But the light from the burning tree, which she had noticed before against the rear seatback, was missing. The muted roar and crackle of the fire were gone. Their air hole — their lifeline — was plugged as though it had never been. She silently gathered both sobbing children into her arms, and sat quietly. Hopelessly.
Superman touched down on the graveled rooftop of the Daily Planet building, allowing Walter to step away before spinning into his alter ego. They hurried to the door to the stairwell, then swiftly descended floor after floor toward the newsroom.
"What do you hope to find?" asked Walter.
"I don't know; I'm just hoping Lois left a note or something before they left."
As they stepped out of the stairway door, the elevator *ding*ed and the door slid open to reveal Jimmy Olsen. "CK, Walter! What're you guys doing here? I thought you'd be long gone by now, on your way up to fun times in the mountains."
"Well, Jimbo, it seems that half of our party is missing. Have you seen Lois?"
"Or Karen?" added Walter hopefully.
Jimmy at once picked up the concern in their voices. "No, I thought they left with you. I heard Lois say that they were stopping by to pick up the kids, and then they'd be on their way outa town! Have you tried phoning them?"
"We tried from the cabin, but we were out of range."
Clark walked over and scanned his and Lois's desks to see if a note had been left as Walter grabbed the handset of a phone on the nearest desk and quickly dialed a well-known number. He waited impatiently. Clark surreptitiosly listened for the ringing of Lois's distant cell phone, but heard nothing. Finally Walter hung up the telephone. He shook his head. "I guess they must be out of range, or else Lois's battery is dead."
"You got the old 'Subscriber is not reachable' message, huh?"
"No," said Walter, "it just rang and rang. No answer."
Jimmy looked puzzled. "But that's not how cell systems work nowadays. If the system can't locate the phone, it tells you so…"
Clark was staring hard at the photographer. "You mean that the phone is somewhere nearby, but no one's answering?"
"Well, not necessarily nearby, but yeah; it's in the network."
Clark was thinking furiously. "Jimmy, is there any way to triangulate a phone's location?"
"Ya mean like they used to do in war movies, where directional antennas in two different locations each turn to point toward a transmitter somewhere? Then they each draw a straight line on a map and pinpoint the transmitter by where the lines cross?"
"Yeah, I guess that's what I mean."
"You can't do that with cell phone station antennas, 'cause they don't rotate." Disappointment showed on Clark's and Walter's faces. "You'd need to use a different system, called 'echo- location.'"
"Does it exist for cell phones?"
"Well, they don't advertise the fact, but yeah, a couple of years ago, the government authorized that feature. Nowadays the feds, or whoever, can locate a phone really quick by electronic echo- location — provided that the phone is within range of three or more transmitting stations."
"What if it's not?" Walter asked.
"You mean, like only one station, for example?" Walter nodded. Jimmy beckoned them to follow him to his desk. "You can still get some location information, just not the exact position." He switched on his computer.
"See," he went on as his monitor warmed up, "two or more ground stations try to be in constant contact with a cell-phone unit so that, if the signal received by one station gets too weak…"
"…it can hand off the call to the other station. I've heard about that."
"Yeah, but there's more to the story. A station can send out a locator signal to a phone. That signal travels outward in all directions at the speed of light, until it reaches the phone. The phone immediately sends out a response signal — like an echo — which travels back and gets picked up by the station. Since the signals travel at the speed of light, just multiply that by the time it takes for the round trip, and…"
"…and you have the distance from the station to the phone," finished Clark.
"Well, almost; you have to divide it by two to get the one-way distance. Now," he went on, grabbing a piece of paper and beginning to draw, "it knows the distance to the phone, but not the direction." He drew a dot on the page, which he labeled 'S1,' and then drew a large circle around it. "It only knows that the phone must be somewhere on this circle.
"Then," he went on, "the second station does the same thing." He drew another dot, labeled 'S2,' and drew a different-sized circle around that dot. The two circles crossed one another in two places. "The system now knows that the phone has to be either here, or here." He indicated the two intersections. "If we have three stations, the system can narrow it down to just one of the intersections."
"Jimmy," Clark said, his gaze intent on his young friend, "you're the world's foremost hacker…"
"'Researcher,' CK, 'researcher.' Ya gotta remember that, so you don't get me into trouble!" Jimmy grinned.
Clark returned the look with a slight smile. "Okay, 'researcher' then. Is there any way…that is, could you…"
"Consider it done, my man!" He dropped into his chair, and his fingers were quickly flying over the keys. Shortly, a window popped up on the screen showing a map with a large dot in the lower-right corner, and a complicated number displayed beside it. Near the top and left sides of the map, an arc of red was displayed, as though it were part of a circle having the dot as its center.
"That's interesting. They're only within range of one station. This mostly covers the mountains north and west of Metropolis."
"Why doesn't it go all the way around the station?" asked Walter.
"Ever notice the tower for a cell-phone ground station? It's got three banks of antennas on it, each pointing in a different direction around the compass. The system can tell, by the relative strengths of the signal received by each antenna bank, roughly which direction the signal's coming from."
"That's still a pretty big area to cover," said Clark, pointing to the space between the circle arc and the ground station. "It looks like that circle has a radius of at least thirty miles!"
"Thirty-two point six miles, to be exact. But, CK, they're not *within* the circle. They're *on* it."
"You mean they're somewhere along this red line?"
"Yep, have to be!" Jimmy affirmed. He hit a key. "The map's printing out now. I sure hope you can track 'em down."
"We'll get Superman to help us!" Clark said as he grabbed the map off the printer. He and Walter ran for the stairs, leaving an open-mouthed James Olsen staring after them. Once the stairway door had closed, Clark grabbed Walter around the waist and headed up the stairs at super-speed.
They reached the roof, and Clark set Walter down in order to spin back into the Suit. As he reached for Walter again, he froze.
Superman slowly turned to Walter, a look of intense pain on his face. "It's gone. It just…it just faded out."
"What did?" Walter' confusion was evident.
"There's this…this *connection* between Lois and me. We've always had it, and I can feel it, no matter where she is. It's gone."
'No. Leave me alone. I can't *do* it anymore.'
Karen. Save my babies.
'Can't you understand? I don't know *how*. I lost *you*; now I'm going to lose *them*.'
She felt a shuddering sigh coming from the child at her right, and realized that the children's sobs had ceased. She tried to force herself to stop the recrimination-laden dialogue which was playing itself out in her imagination. Or — was it her imagination?
'Lois —' Now she was willing to put a name to the voice in her mind. '— I can't do anything else. Our air supply has stopped again, the kids are emotionally exhausted, the light's getting dimmer. What's left?'
Don't give up. I wouldn't have.
'But you were *Lois Lane*. I'm just a…just a dumb nurse who doesn't know anything…who didn't even know how to save you.'
Karen. Help is here. You just have to look for it.
She took a deep breath and attempted to push the imaginary voice from her mind.
Look up. *Now*, Karen.
She opened her eyes, startled at the sudden intensity of the imaginary voice.
"Emma, can you see how much rock is on top of us now?"
Emma glanced up, and her dull voice responded, "Lots more than before. Maybe twice as much."
"Could we dig through the hole again?"
"No. It's lots higher than my arm can reach. And this time it's got big rocks all through it. I couldn't push 'em out of the way, or fly 'em out." She heaved a sigh. "Besides, I don't care anymore. I just wanna die and be with Mama."
Karen took another deep breath. "Please, Emma. Just one more try. Is the fire still going?"
Emma glanced toward the windscreen. "Yeah. It's still going." Her eyes seemed to follow the tree upward. "And…and Daddy's here." And then, "Daddy's here! With Walter!"
"Huh?" said Gracie.
"Look! Up in the sky! It's…it's…"
"It's Daddy!" yelled Gracie. "Daddy, Daddy…"
Suddenly all in the rear seat were yelling at the top of their voices; the children were waving their arms wildly; they were pounding on the padded roof of the Jeep; Karen was shouting for Walter and Clark. Then she realized their mistake and began yelling "Help, Superman!" and the children's cries changed to match hers. Karen grabbed a fist-sized rock from the front seat and began banging it against the roof.
Gradually their cries and blows faded as they realized that the figures circling the top of the tree above them simply were not hearing them. The heart dropped out of each of them as the figures began to move away toward the north.
'*No*!' thought Karen. 'I'm *not* going to lose this one!' She lunged forward.
Don't think. Don't feel. Just start the next scan — begin a mile to the left of the flight path, sweep your gaze across the terrain below you, and end a mile to the right. Miss nothing; x- ray everything from the ground up. Now start the sweep in the other direction. Don't think about the loss, the emptiness, the aching for someone who can never be here again, who you can never — NO! Don't think. Don't feel. Start another scan…
"How can you see when it's so dark?" Walter asked. There was no response. "Clark…"
Superman sighed and responded, "Um — sorry, Walter. What?"
"Uh, nothing really important. I was just wondering how you can see where we're going, let alone anything on the ground below us."
"Oh. There's enough moonlight and starlight leaking through these storm clouds that I can see well enough." He glanced again at the map in his other hand.
"If we flew above the clouds, wouldn't you be able to see a larger area at once? You know, with your x-ray vision?"
"Yes, I would, but I don't want to go up and down through the clouds."
"Well, storm clouds and I don't mix. Not when I'm carrying a passenger."
"Oh, right. I forgot about the lightning danger. You're invulnerable, but I guess I could get pretty dead." Then Walter cringed as his mind played back his tactless remark.
Superman didn't seem to notice. "Well, yeah, there's that. But there are other considerations when I'm carrying someone."
"Well, I'm not really free to go into them. Suffice to say that I can see plenty by staying at this altitude." The bottoms of the clouds were only a few hundred feet above them.
They flew in silence for a while, Superman carefully scanning the terrain below for any sign either of the Jeep, or of the girls and women.
Walter said, "Clark? I'm really sorry. Could there be any doubt? Could she just be unconscious, for example?"
"Lois has been unconscious before on several occasions. I nearly lost her when she delivered Gracie. She's been locked in bank vaults, buried in a cave…I've always felt her presence, even during those times. The only time the sense of her presence ever stopped was when she was transported to another dimension. Then the sense of loss was instantaneous."
"Another dimen…" Walter looked incredulous.
"Trust me; it happened. Then, when she was brought back, I felt her return instantly. But this time it was different. It was as though she just…faded away." He sighed. "She's gone, Walter. The love of my life, the other half of me…she's not here anymore."
"Buddy, how can you stand it? How can you stand to go on?"
"A few years ago, I couldn't have. But somewhere out there, two little girls may still be alive. I have to stand it, for them."
They flew on, Walter silently wondering if Karen had shared Lois's fate. He glanced ahead into the darkness. "Clark, what's that sort of glow against the clouds in the next valley?"
"I don't know; I guess we'll see when we get there. It appears to be on our way." Superman resolutely held his course and speed.
A couple of minutes later they topped a ridge and were able to peer down into the valley below. They drew to a stop — and stared. A mighty, solitary finger of fire was pointing up at the sky. With a *whoosh* they descended, and began orbiting the top of the roaring inferno — for roar it did. Eighty linear feet of dry forest wood was spewing out incandescent gases, to be ignited by the omnipresent oxygen and add their energy to the upward- racing holocaust.
"Could they have started this?" yelled Walter.
"I don't know; it's possible," Superman yelled back. "But I don't see anything near the tree that would indicate that they were ever here."
They slowly circled the tree several more times, Superman carefully extending his senses to scan the area for any sign of either mechanical or human disturbance. But, except for slight signs of a recent shift in a rockslide below, there was nothing.
"I don't see any sign of them," he yelled. "This must have just been caused by a lightning strike. We'd better keep going." They renewed their course toward the north, gradually climbing to regain their lost altitude.
Then Superman drew to a halt. "Listen. Can you hear it?" A wide smile creased his face.
"Hear what?" There was no sound but the now-distant roar of the fire.
Then Walter heard it — the very faint, but insistent and repeated honking of a car horn.
With a *whoosh* he and Superman were back at the tree. Walter found himself unceremoniously set down a dozen feet down the slope from the tree. There was a blur, and a cloud of dust and debris as Superman ploughed underneath the bottom of the slide. With a grating and grinding which rivaled the roar of the fire, a portion of the slide between two gigantic boulders began to rise into the air. As the debris poured off the front and sides of Superman's burden, it resolved itself into a battered, scratched, hammered version of Lois's beloved Jeep Grand Cherokee. The windows were a shambles of broken and pebbled glass, miraculously intact; the sides and top were covered with dents and ragged tears large and small; the driver's-side front wheel had blown and shredded; and a two-foot-diameter area including the front of the driver's door was mashed inward more than a foot.
The car was carefully set down on level ground a dozen feet from Walter, and in a blur, the passenger door behind the driver was suddenly ripped from its hinges to the sound of rending metal and tossed aside. Superman was reaching inside, helping a young woman out of the car. She spied Walter and, with a cry, she was in his arms.
Superman turned back to the car — and witnessed a scene straight out of *Peter Pan*. Two young children came swooping out the car door through the air, hand-in-hand, and lighted on the ground near Walter and Karen. Emma dropped Gracie's hand, and with a yell of "Daddy!" launched herself at him, catching him around the neck. He hugged her fervently to himself and then glanced back at Gracie.
Gracie was staring at the imposing figure in the garish uniform and billowing red cape with a look midway between timidity and fright. Instantly, Superman set Emma down by his side and then slowly and purposefully reached back into a pocket in his cape and removed a pair of glasses. Putting these on, and mussing his hair with one hand, he dropped to his knees and held out both hands.
Gracie gave a whimper, and then was running into his arms, sobbing as if her heart would never mend. Clark held them both a moment or two, caressing their hair and whispering comfort to each of them. "…so scared…rocks came down… buried us…thought you were going away…" Walter and Karen, as they clung to one another, could hear these and other scraps and snatches as the children poured out their tale to their father.
Then Karen could wait no longer. She walked over and, reaching past Emma, placed a hand on his shoulder. "Clark…about Lois…she's…"
He looked up at her. "I know, Karen. Twenty-five minutes ago. I felt it when it happened."
"Daddy…what're we gonna do about Mama? We can't leave her there…" Emma's pinched face looked into her father's eyes.
Clark took a deep breath and let it out. "No. We can't. We shouldn't."
"Daddy, Mommy died." This solemn pronouncement from his youngest daughter came closer to unnerving the Man of Steel than anything ever had. He carefully released each child and stood up. Karen led the girls over to stand between her and Walter as Superman strode slowly over to the battered Jeep, took hold of the driver's door and, in a sudden motion, wrenched it off. He carefully set the door to the side as rocks and debris spilled out the doorway from off Lois's lap. With two practiced bursts of heat-vision he quickly severed the seatbelt and shoulder restraint; then, with infinite tenderness, he lifted the still form of his wife from the car.
Turning to face them, he surveyed the parched ground for a suitable site. Finally settling on the only spot of grass within reach, he walked over to it, knelt, and carefully arranged her on the ground, taking a moment to correct the angle of her broken arm. He gazed at her face and then slowly reached out a hand to cup her cheek. He heard a small sob from behind him, and he turned to see Gracie's eyes riveted on her mother's body. And his carefully-maintained control snapped.
"NnnnnnnnnnnOO…" He began to rise, slowly accelerating upward beside the burning tree.
"Daddy, no!" Emma's hand was yanked out of Walter's as she shot upward after her father, her flight tracked by Walter and Karen. Only Gracie's gaze remained fixed on her mother.
Clark reached the top of the pillar of flame, and in a fit of rage against nature, against circumstance, against the universe at large, he altered his course directly into the flames, his fists flailing.
There was a flash, and an ear-splitting *BANG*.
Outdoors people know. Campers, hikers, Forest Service personnel…these people know the danger of building a fire under a high-voltage power line on a calm day. They know that, as the smoke trail rises, the ionized smoke particles provide an ideal electrical conductor from the overhead wires to the ground. Those who don't know this have occasionally lost their lives.
Likewise, the tremendous volume of combustion products released by the burning shaft of wood, and rising through the still air toward the storm clouds above, provided the perfect conduit for the enormous charge of static electricity building within those clouds. Once the critical voltage threshold was overcome, a hundred and fifty thousand amperes of electric current flashed down the conduit in a microsecond, further ionizing the air to produce a brilliant flash, and heating and expanding it to create a tremendous burst of sound. Less than two inches wide, the trail continued downward until it entered — and passed harmlessly through — the invulnerable body of the Man of Steel. Finding below it a fiery column of plasma — an almost perfect conductor — it continued down the outside of the tree, flashing harmlessly past the smaller living form in the air nearby, and carrying with it a pattern, which had been imprinted on it when it had passed through the living body above it. The passage of so much electric current forced the erection of an unthinkably powerful magnetic field surrounding the conduit.
Then it stopped, stymied, and the pattern rapidly began to dissipate. The associated fields re-adjusted themselves, seeking a path through the insulating air below the column of flame to the ground fifteen feet below. Only one path proved suitable. There was a tiny underground spring which leaked out into the soil a few feet out from the base of the tree, providing just enough moisture to sustain a patch of grass several feet across, a patch on which lay the body of a young woman. This would do.
The charge, by now bereft of its imprinted pattern, leapt the gap, producing a fresh plasma column between the fire and the ground, completing the circuit with the cloud above. It passed through the woman's body, and was received by the welcoming ground below. The horrendous voltage driving the current quickly dropped to zero, and the current attempted to follow suit.
But the built-up magnetic field, surrounding the plasma column along its entire length, had other ideas. As the magnetic field began to collapse, it poured its energy back into the electron stream, forcing the stream to continue its flow far longer than if driven by voltage alone. Thus, when the flow finally exhausted itself, there was an enormous excess of charge deposited in the ground beneath the strike.
In a phenomenon which scientists refer to as the "return stroke," this charge originated a lightning strike of its own, somewhat less powerful, flowing back *up* the column, until much of the charge was restored to the cloud above. And the process again began to reverse.
Down-and-up, down-and-up the flow oscillated, for more than a thousand microseconds — a millisecond — gradually weakening with each passage. But on the latter passages, the plasma trail had already been established, and so the pattern re-imprinted on the electron stream was not lost, but was carried undiminished from the body of the man above to the still body of the woman below.
All of this took place in much less time than a single eye-blink. So the single pair of eyes which witnessed the scene on the ground, only saw the woman's body jerk violently as the lightning struck it, and then lie still.
Emma screamed as the tree next to her seemed to explode with light and sound, and reflexively jerking backward, she began to fall. As she plummeted toward the ground she screamed again — and then felt herself enfolded by her father's strong arms, and carefully — and tenderly — lowered back to the ground.
"I'm sorry, Pumpkin; I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you."
She in turn placed her arms tightly around her father's neck. "Daddy, please don't leave us! I couldn't stand it if…"
"I know, honey; I won't. I won't," he repeated. "I promise."
They floated down to where the others stood. Gracie was continuing to stare at her mother's still form. Clark knelt beside her. "Would you like to say goodbye to Mommy? Before we all take her back to the city?"
Gracie slowly nodded, her eyes never leaving her mother.
Clark took her by the hand and slowly led her over to the recumbent form on the grassy ground. "Would you like to hold Mommy's hand and say goodbye?"
Gracie slowly reached for Lois's right hand. "G'bye, Mommy. I love you." She looked up at her father. "Why is Mommy's hand so cold?" Clark realized his mistake and turned helplessly to Karen.
"I'll tell her. Bring her over here."
"Come on, Sweetie. Let's go back with the others." He began to stand.
"Mommy won't let go of my hand."
At Clark's look of anguish, Karen stepped forward and knelt beside Gracie. "That's not your mommy making the hand squeeze." Taking Lois's hand, she carefully opened the fingers; it seemed to take a surprising amount of force. "You see, honey," she explained, "sometimes parts of our body just move all by themselves. It's called a reflex. Maybe a part of your body will give a little jerk without you meaning for it to happen…" She demonstrated with a jerk of her shoulder.
Surprisingly, the child was nodding as though she understood. "Like Mommy jerked when the lightning hit her?"
Clark froze. Then he slowly said, "Cupcake, the lightning didn't hit Mommy…"
"Yes it did. An' she jerked when it hit her. I was watchin'," she added.
"The…the same lightning that hit me?" he asked slowly.
He turned to Karen. "Take the children over to Walter. Please," he added as she hesitated. As Karen led them away, he began a slow, but thorough visual examination of his wife's body. The massive pooling of blood which had collected in the abdominal cavity…it was slowly, but surely, being absorbed — being re- integrated back into Lois's system. As he watched, the internal ruptures and tissue tears were beginning to heal themselves.
And then he heard it. Thump-a. Thump-a. It was a sound which he had never expected to hear again. He quickly spun around. "Karen, come here, quickly. And quietly," he added, looking at the children.
"Be right back," she said, smiling down at the children. She hastened to Clark's side.
"Karen, I have to tell you something — something which you and Walter must promise to take to your graves."
Immediately, Karen responded, "You have our word; neither of us will ever breathe a word of it. What's going on?"
"Karen, she's alive." At Karen's in-drawn breath, he quietly hastened on. "No, don't say anything. Don't examine her. Just let me explain." She nodded. "Karen, if I'm hit by lightning, and then the lightning passes into another person, they receive a copy of my superpowers…including my invulnerability. Just now, Lois was struck by the same bolt as me." His eyes widened. "Karen, she's alive," he repeated.
Karen stood frozen, stunned by this news. Then her medical training took over and she began thinking furiously. "Clark, don't tell the children yet. Don't get their hopes up."
"But her body's healing itself! Her heart's beating again."
"Just listen a minute. I'm afraid you may have been handed an enormous ethical dilemma. Clark, much of the body's tissue can survive for a long time after death — nearly an hour, mostly. That's why she's responding to the invulnerability.
"But, Clark, not the brain. It begins to die if it goes only four minutes without oxygen." She took a deep breath and went on. "Clark, it's been half an hour. She's brain-dead. She has to be. If she heals, if her body rejuvenates itself, it won't be Lois. You may find yourself having to care for years for a healthy, invulnerable, super-powered vegetable." She regretted the blunt words, but this was critical; she had to make him face the problem.
He stood silently. She went on, "Is there any choice? Once this starts, could it be stopped?"
He exhaled and then nodded. "I receive my powers from Earth's yellow sun. If she's kept out of the light long enough, she would lose the invulnerability. Her injuries are still serious enough that she would succumb — again." He drew a ragged breath.
She was silent for a moment. Then she asked, "What are you going to do?"
He glanced at Walter, and at the children. "I can't ask anyone else to make this decision for me. The kids aren't wise enough yet, or mature enough, to handle something like this." He ran trembling fingers through his hair. "What do I do, Karen?"
"Clark, I've already given you my best counsel. But this is one I can't decide for you. Have you felt the…the 'connection' Walter told me about? Is it back?"
He bowed his head. "No. It's not. But that might just mean that the healing process hasn't gone far enough to restore her mind." He glanced again at the children. "Can you watch them for a minute? I need to get away." As her alarmed glance fell on the girls, he added, "It really will be just for a minute. Keep everyone well-back from the tree in case of another lightning strike," he added.
She nodded. "Leave when you need to. We'll be fine."
As he launched himself up past the tree, up into and through the clouds, he could hear Karen making innocuous explanations to the girls and to Walter. As he came to a stop with the light of the full moon shining down on him and the starry heavens silently blazing in the background, he began running through his mind all the things which he had just heard.
He knew that he would have to give up being Superman if his wife were a total invalid — no one else would be able to handle her. But if she died, he would probably have to retire anyway, to give a super-powered daughter — or maybe two, should Gracie develop any superpowers — the upbringing and training which they would need; to teach them to be the kind of people his parents — and Lois — would want them to be. Either road was a no-win situation. The only possible solution which seemed to offer any hope for him — and for Superman — was the extremely unlikely chance that Lois would recover in mind as well as body, either with or without superpowers.
Then he realized that her body was making the decision for him. Short of keeping her quarantined from sunlight, she would continue to recover. Did he have the right to take that process away from her, no matter where it might lead?
Finally, with many misgivings but with a renewed determination, he turned in the air and headed back down — down to his family.
As Clark came in sight of the little group, which had by now moved several feet further from the tree, he heard Karen attempting to explain to two very worried girls that their father would be back in just a minute. He landed in front of them and spent a moment stooping before them and calming their fears. Then he stood and turned to look at Lois. After a moment spent further ascertaining her condition, he turned back to face them all.
"Kids — and Walter, and Karen — I have to tell you something. When the lightning hit Mommy a few minutes ago, it started her heart beating again. She's alive — wait, *wait*!" he went on, trying to stem their exuberance. "She's only *barely* alive. She might die again in a little while. Or she might live a long time but be so sick that she won't even know who we are." He paused to let that sink in, especially for Gracie. "There's only a small chance —" At a look from Karen, he amended his words, "— a *tiny* chance that she'll get all the way better. But I've thought about it, and I think that, however tiny the chance, we need to let her try. Are you willing to take that chance and hope that she gets better?"
Of course there was no doubt of the outcome of his poll; both girls — even Gracie, when the issue was explained to her again — agreed that they should try to save Mommy.
"Then I need to take Mommy's cell phone and fly into the clouds again so I can get better reception. I'm going to call a doctor that I know of and see if we can take Mommy to him. All right?"
"You mean Dr. Klein?" asked Emma.
"Yes. If anyone can help your mother recover, it's him." He didn't add that Dr. Klein was the only medical person (besides Karen, now) who was privy to the family's special secret. "I'll be back just as soon as I can reach him. In the meantime, I'm going to cut down this tree so that burning pieces don't fall on Mommy. By the way, I'm assuming that Emma must have gotten heat- vision to set it on fire. Congratulations, Pumpkin."
"Daddy, I wish I could say it was me, but it wasn't." She pointed to her little sister.
Clark stared at Gracie. She was practically bursting her buttons with pride. "You?!" he said in astonishment.
"Yeah. I did it all myself. Ya wanna see?"
So they all watched as Gracie set a small portion of the tree alight near the ground. "An' I can see through things, too, just like Emma!"
As Clark gazed at his younger daughter, he felt his eyes mist up. His babies were growing up, and Lois might not be around to see it. Then he shifted back to business. "Everyone stand back." He gave a puff of super-cold breath, and Gracie's small demonstration fire was extinguished. Then, with a couple of well-directed bursts of heat-vision, he sliced the tree off a foot or two above the base of the original fire. As the top began to fall, he caught it under the bottom and guided it out to the middle of the barren field. Quickly flying around it, he dowsed the fire with super-breath, and then let it topple. He returned to the group. "I'll leave the little fire that's left up there to give you light until I get back. In the meantime, how about emptying out the front and back seats of the car? We'll use the back seat for Mommy, and everyone else can crowd into the front."
He quickly located Lois's cell phone and headed up into the clouds. Finding that the phone was in working order and receiving the ground station, he hurriedly dialed Bernard Klein's home number, and then waited impatiently for an answer.
"Bernie? It's Clark…Yes, I know what time it is, but this is literally a matter of life and death." He quickly supplied an abbreviated explanation of the situation and arranged for Dr. Klein to meet them at the lab in fifteen minutes. He returned to the car to find the crew just finishing with the cleanup — except Karen, who had just finished applying a makeshift splint to Lois's upper arm.
"Okay, I'm going to take the steering column out to leave you all more room." A little heat-vision and super-strength accomplished this task. "Now I need to move Mommy in." He scanned Lois's unconscious form. "Karen, she has a broken spine. The spinal cord hasn't severed yet, but it's under stress. I'm afraid that lifting her, no matter how I do it, will damage it more. I wish there were a way to carry her to the car perfectly horizontally…"
"Strapping her to a gurney is the only sure way to guarantee that. But I think that Emma may be able to help you there." She quickly explained, with Clark's eyes glancing in wonder at his elder daughter.
"You mean you learned that all by yourself?" he asked Emma, amazed.
"No, Karen figured it out…and it worked. Now I can do it all the time." This time Clark directed his amazed gaze at Karen — and found it copied by Walter's. Karen simply blushed.
"I just took what I learned about flying from Lois and extrapolated it a little…"
Clark muttered something under his breath, which sounded like "…legions of angels…" Then he went to the car and carefully removed the other rear door. He and Emma took their positions, Clark lying prone on the ground beyond Lois's head and carefully placing his hands under her shoulders, and Emma doing the same thing and taking hold of her feet.
"Are you sure you can do this, Pumpkin?" he asked worriedly.
"Dad, this is *Mama*. I promise I won't let anything happen to her."
"Okay, then. One, two, three…" The two super beings floated silently up from the ground, Lois floating up weightlessly between them. Clark verbally guided their progress, his eyes focused on Lois's spine, as Emma backed through the car, floating above the rear seat and out the far doorway, Lois trailing feet- first behind her. They lowered Lois carefully onto the seat.
"Now, let her legs down slowly. Her knees will bend, but her lower legs can just extend out of the car." Once Lois was optimally situated, Clark went around the car and put an arm around his daughter. "That was pretty impressive, Pumpkin."
"Thanks, Dad." Emma was smiling up at him.
"So, when did you start calling me 'Dad?'"
"Just now. I'm getting too old to call you 'Daddy,' don't you think?"
He gazed at his seven-year-old daughter and shook his head, amazed at the new-found wisdom and maturity he saw there.
The car was loaded, with Karen sitting next to the intact passenger door, Gracie on her lap. Walter was next; then Emma sat next to the open door. Walter worried about this. "Listen, Kiddo, why not let me sit there, and you sit in the middle?"
"Dad had to cut the seatbelt off when he took Mama out of the car. So somebody who can fly needs to sit on the outside." Then she ventured a sly grin. "I'm an angel, remember?"
Walter burst out laughing. "A little devil, more likely!"
Then Superman extinguished the remainder of the fire, burrowed beneath the Jeep, and shortly they were airborne.
The flight to STAR Labs was mostly uneventful, although the wind picked up part way there, and a couple of moderately close lightning strikes startled the passengers somewhat. They breathed easier as the STAR Laboratories logo came into view on the lawn of the building ahead of them, and Superman gently set the Jeep down near a receiving door, where they waited. A sprinkle of rain was beginning to fall.
A bare minute or two later, the door slid upward and Dr. Klein appeared, pushing a padded gurney. As he gazed at the group piling out of the Jeep, his expression became guarded. "Uh, Superman — I didn't expect that anyone else would be with you."
Superman dusted off his uniform and approached the balding scientist. "It's OK, Bernie; they all know who I am."
Bernie looked startled. "Even Gracie? When did she find out?"
"It's a long story; I'll fill you in later. Suffice to say, you don't want to get her mad at you. She's discovered she has heat vision." He grinned slightly and winked at Klein.
"Uh — when did that happen? How did —" At a look from Clark he added, "Never mind. How's Lois?"
Clark quickly summarized his wife's physical injuries. When he had finished, Dr. Klein wheeled the gurney over the asphalt driveway toward the Jeep. His eyes widened. "What on earth happened here? Lois's car looks like it's been in a war zone!"
"She and the girls were buried under a landslide for a few hours. Anyway, that can wait. We need to get her out of the car and onto that gurney."
"I don't know how we can do that. If she has a severe spinal injury…"
"Watch and learn," Clark responded with a slight smile. "Emma…"
Emma and her father took up their stations near both rear doors of the car. Then, after Clark had scanned the parking lot for unwanted visitors, he and Emma levitated themselves into position. "Bernie, stand on the other side of that gurney and hold it steady. Ready, Superlady?"
"*Dad*…" Emma blushed; then she carefully raised her mother's ankles until her knees were straight, and she and Clark floated Lois out of the car and onto the gurney, settling her carefully away from the sides, with her head resting on a thin pillow.
"If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes…wherever did you learn *that* trick?"
"The lady right behind you thought it up. Let's get inside and I'll introduce you."
They all quickly moved into the receiving bay, and Klein pressed the button which lowered the door. They followed him as he pushed the gurney down the hall, into a freight elevator, and then up a level. Then they proceeded down another hallway and into a darkened medical facility. Equipment lined the walls, and a moveable overhead examining light was situated over an open space surrounded by carts with empty trays on them. He wheeled Lois in between these, and under the light. He began to reach for the switch for the light.
"I hafta go to the bathroom," said Gracie.
"Actually, I think all three of us could use a rest stop," added Karen. "Clark, why don't you fill the doctor in on everything — *everything* —" she emphasized, "and I'll take the girls to the ladies' room." She raised an eyebrow at Dr. Klein.
"Uh — oh, right. Sorry. It's back down the hall, two doors past the elevator we came up in." As the womenfolk filed out, he turned to Clark. "What was that all about?" He gestured toward three chairs, which they all rearranged to face each other, and sat down.
"Well," began Clark, "there's an added complication, which I didn't get a chance to explain on the phone, and which I didn't want to discuss in front of the girls. As I mentioned, Lois was resuscitated by a lightning strike, involving a donation of superpowers from me to her. As a result, her body is beginning to heal itself because of the invulnerability. Walter," he added to his friend, "I heard Karen telling you that part of the story in the car." He turned back to Klein, and continued. "But what you don't know, Bernie, is that she was clinically dead for about half an hour before the transfer."
There was silence. Then Bernie Klein blinked, and ran a hand over his sparse pate. "Good lord, Clark! You do realize, don't you, that brain-death has almost certainly taken over. She —" He caught Clark's pained expression and immediately attempted to back-pedal. "See, *this* is why I never went into private practice; I'm just no good with people —"
Clark leaned forward and placed a hand on his knee. "It's okay, Bernie; I know the odds are pretty slim. Karen pointed it out to me."
"She's the lady who just left with the kids. This is her husband, Walter Middleton. He works at the Planet with me." The two men exchanged a handshake. "Karen is a nurse," he added.
"I'm glad she knows," said Bernie. "I'm sure I'll need her help." He stood up and began to pace. "Clark, this changes everything."
"You mean we can't —"
"Oh, no, we'll continue to try to bring her back. But the brain is by far the most delicate and complicated organ in the human body. If the healing takes place too fast, any chance she might have of regaining her mental faculties — and her memory — could be lost." Then his face took on a determined look. "Clark, I need you to go out to a store somewhere and get several rolls of red transparent plastic wrap. I'm going to have to cover every source of light — the windows, the ceiling lights, even the examining light. We've got to slow the restoration process down so her brain can heal itself at an orderly rate.
"'Course," he added, "she must have had a good source of sunlight after the lightning strike; something sure seems to have kick- started her rejuvenation…"
"Bernie, it's the middle of the night, in a rainstorm! The only source of light she had was…"
"Was it yellow? Incandescent, from a source with lots of hydrogen in it?"
"Well, yeah. It was the light from a burning pine tree. How did you know?"
"Only a source of yellow incandescent light approaching the spectrum of our sun could have done it. Clark, even though there was also a lot of carbon in the spectrum, that burning tree may have just saved Lois's life. Now, we just have to see if we can save her mind…"
Karen and the girls trooped back in at that point, and introductions were made. "I understand you know a little about nursing…"
Karen blinked, and then seemed to grow about two inches in stature. She fixed Klein with a level stare. "I'm a licensed RN, with OR *and* ER training and residency, with specialization in triage…"
He blinked at the barrage of alphabet soup, and then held out a hand, palm forward. "Whoa; I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you. Actually, you sound like the most well-qualified person I could wish for. Would you be willing to help me with Lois's case?"
She stood rigidly for a moment; then relaxed and smiled. "Of course I would."
"Mm — Walter, would you like to take these cuties down the hall to the waiting room? There's a vending machine and a couple of couches they could curl up on…"
"I want to stay with Mama."
"Don't worry, Emma; we'll take very good care of your mom," said Karen. "We'll let you know if there's any major change. Okay?"
"Will Mommy be awright?" asked a very tired-looking Gracie.
Clark knelt beside her. "Don't worry, Cupcake. We'll do everything we can for her. Okay?"
She nodded. Walter placed a brief kiss on his wife's cheek, and the three headed out the door.
Clark ran a hand tiredly through his hair as he looked over at his comatose wife. He drew his chair closer to the gurney on which she still lay. Her breathing was now continuous and steady, as was her heartbeat. Saline and glucose drip bags hung on a pole beside her, slowly feeding fluid into her right arm; her clothes lay in a pile on a chair a few feet away. She showed the results of Karen's ministrations: she had been bathed, insofar as possible, and dressed in a hospital gown. A light cover lay over her. Her numerous lacerations had been bandaged, but Dr. Klein had elected not to apply stitches, knowing that they would be rejected as her tissue healed itself.
Great effort had been made to carefully arrange her body so that all fractures, including her spine, were meticulously re-aligned, Clark serving in lieu of x-ray equipment for these efforts. Her head had been carefully shaved in a few spots, and EEG wires led from her scalp to the associated machinery — which currently showed several completely flat lines sweeping across a small screen.
All sources of light had been covered with red plastic wrap, as well as the outside windows and the frosted window of the hallway door. Even a desk lamp, which was currently providing the sole illumination for the room, was shrouded in red.
Karen had availed herself of the shower facilities associated with the small clinic, and was now sitting quietly across the room with Dr. Klein, both of them wearing lab smocks, as he dressed the cuts and abrasions on her legs and ankles, and bandaged the bruise on her right temple. Clark could hear them conversing quietly.
"I really need to say that I was impressed with your skill, Nurse Middleton. I…"
She gave a soft, weary chuckle. "C'mon, Doc, you can call me Karen. I'm too tired for formalities."
"Well, I just wanted to say that if you ever need a recommendation…say, for a position at Metropolis General…I'd be happy to provide it."
"Thanks; that's really decent of you. I'm still hoping I can persuade Walter that I should put my skills to work while there's still just the two of us — I mean before we have children to care for," she responded a little sadly. "He feels the need to provide for both of us. But I *can* do this, and I think I *should* do it. I've certainly trained hard enough for it."
Clark got up and wandered over. He was now dressed in his 'civilian' clothes. "Sorry; I couldn't help overhearing." He pulled up a chair. "Karen, on that gurney over there lies a woman who's made a tremendous difference in the world around her. She sees a wrong, and she wades in with both feet to set it right.
"Before we were married she made it clear to me that she refused to be a 'kept woman,' as she put it. She was her own person, and she meant to stay that way. In fact, she even kept her own last name — 'Lois Lane' — because she felt that that name represented who she was; what she stood for. Even raising two children hasn't dampened that independent spirit. Between the Daily Planet and my very irregular Superman duties, we have a pretty heavy, hectic schedule. But working together, we're managing to make it work, and she's kept her independence.
"I've never tried to hold her back from that independence. And I've never been sorry for that decision. If you'd like, I'd be happy to talk to Walter and explain what I've just explained to you. The amazing talents and resources you've shown in this whole episode shouldn't go to waste. Not when there's such a need for them…"
"No, they shouldn't." They all turned to see Walter standing by the door. He walked over and stood in front of his wife and reached for her hand. "Love, it's just plain unbelievable what you accomplished out there in that Jeep — with no air, not much light, no contact with the world, and no one to help you except two small children. Sure, you had some superpowers at your disposal, but you were the 'brains of the outfit' — you made it all happen. I've been sitting down the hall thinking — and I agree with Clark: such incredible talent shouldn't go to waste. If you want to apply that talent and training to a career, you have my full support — and my blessing."
Karen blinked back a couple of tears which seemed to want to fall. Then, slowly and deliberately, she stood, wrapped her arms around her husband, and delivered a kiss which rapidly grew so steamy that both Clark and Dr. Klein judiciously withdrew to Lois's bedside.
"Well? What do we do now?" asked Clark quietly. "I know that this is putting a burden on you, and on STAR Labs. Should she be transferred to a regular hospital or a convalescent center while she heals?"
"Clark, you know that we can't do that. There are too many special requirements that couldn't be explained without giving too much away, or making people suspicious. Don't worry about the burden on the Labs; I carry enough clout here that they'll give me pretty much whatever I need, and not ask too many questions. This area will be off-limits; no one has to know that Lois Lane is a patient here. In fact, I'm thinking of offering Nurse Mid…uh, Karen, a full-time position here for the next few weeks, if she'll take it. I certainly can't provide the 24/7 care that Lois will need, but I think that with the three of us on rotation, we can take care of her at least until we see if she'll fully recover." Although he was careful not to delve into the meaning of 'fully recover,' Clark understood what he meant, and nodded.
Clark glanced over at the monitor on the electroencephalograph. "What's that sort of fuzz on the bottom trace? I didn't notice it before."
Klein glanced at the monitor, and then looked closer. He turned a knob a couple of clicks, and the tiny fuzz resolved itself into a jiggly line, punctuated with randomly spaced spikes of various sizes. "Hmm. That's interesting. I wouldn't have expected to see something like that for several days yet — if at all."
"Clark, each of those tiny wiggles represents one or more neurons firing. There's actually some activity there! That's amazing…"
"But what does it mean, for us? What do we do about it?"
"Well, ordinarily I would've said that we just wait a few days, keep her in the dark, and see if the brain would show any signs of healing itself. But, Clark, it already is! Not only are there living neurons there, but their old synaptic links are starting to function again! I don't know how far it'll go before it levels off…" He began to pace. "You know, I think we're past the stage where light deprivation is any help. In fact, with this kind of activity this soon…"
"Are you saying we take down the red plastic wrap? Could that hurt her?"
"Not just take it down; I think we should get her into full sunlight for a while and see how she responds!"
Half an hour later, the shrouds had all been removed, and Lois had been wheeled over near the windows. Fortunately, the clinic was located on the east side of the building; it would not be necessary to even take her out of the room. The lights in the room were turned on, but Dr. Klein explained that since they were fluorescent rather than incandescent, their spectrum would at this point neither help nor hinder appreciably.
The storm had blown past, and the dawn revealed a mostly clear sky; it promised to be a fair morning. Walter had returned to the lounge to sit with the children as they slept, and the others waited, with varying degrees of impatience, for the sunrise.
At last it arrived. Lois was wheeled into the shaft of sunlight, and uncovered so that as much of her skin as modesty permitted could be exposed to the healing light. Klein sat with his eyes glued to the EEG monitor. Clark's eyes were on his wife.
"Bernie, the broken bones are beginning to knit together. She's healing already!"
"I expected that, as soon as the sunlight was restored," said Klein as he proceeded to remove the drip from Lois's arm. "I would think that six or seven hours would suffice for bone re- growth to complete…"
"Six or seven hours!" Karen expostulated. "It normally takes weeks for bones to repair themselves! Are you sure?"
"Don't underestimate the power of invulnerability, young lady! It not only keeps Superman from being hurt, but when he *is* hurt — for example, if he's shot while being weakened by kryptonite — his body repairs itself almost immediately. Of course, bones take a little longer, but…"
"It's a meteorite," said Clark, "a radioactive remnant of my home planet, Krypton. Its rays can take away my powers — including my invulnerability — and also damage my tissues. If I'm exposed to it for very long, it can kill me."
"So how come you're trusting me with this information? Shouldn't you be guarding it with your life?"
"Believe me, all the bad guys who'd like to do me in already know about kryptonite — they just don't know how to get hold of any. Besides…" he looked at her steadily, "I consider you to be as trustworthy as they come."
"Thanks for the compliment. Be assured that I would never…"
"I know that." He glanced at the monitor and took a breath. "Bernie, look at that second line. Does that new activity mean anything?"
Klein followed Clark's glance, and his face broke into an excited grin. "It sure does!" He studied it carefully. "Clark, this pattern is very reminiscent of normal sleep. The only thing we don't know now is whether she'll ever wake up from that sleep — and whether her memory will be intact."
Clark paced. Dr. Klein stared at the monitor. Karen merely observed, keeping an eye on Lois and occasionally checking her vital signs.
Suddenly Clark's pacing ceased. He turned to them, a look of pure wonder in his countenance. "Karen, it's coming back. I can feel it growing…"
Her mouth dropped open. "The…the connection?"
"Yes. It's like…it's like I'm getting acquainted with her all over again!"
"Look! The alpha pattern's beginning to assert itself! She's trying to wake up!"
Clark was immediately at her side. His left hand reached out to cup her cheek. "Come on, sweetheart. Come back to me." Then he paused, and his voice faltered. "Lois, you…you mean everything to me. I need you…your beautiful daughters need you. Come back to us…"
Then Karen stepped over and gently whispered something to him. He looked puzzled, but gamely repeated her message. "Lois, you need to come back. For your babies…"
Lois's eyes snapped open.
She looked around. She was in a strange place. Slowly, her gaze took in the bright ceiling lights, the equipment around her, the people moving before her. Then her gaze singled out one of those people. Her expression changed. In a voice croaky with misuse, she rasped, "Hi, handsome."
She felt her hand being squeezed. "Hi, yourself. It's nice…no, it's *wonderful*…to have you back."
One of the others moved into her field of view. "I need you to tell me who I am."
She blinked at him. "You're…you're Perry. Um…no, that's not it. Is it…Jimmy?"
The first person was again immediately leaning over her. "Honey, tell me your name. Please…"
"Um…it's Wanda. Wanda Detroit. I sing for drinks down at…"
"No!" A devastated look covered his face.
Then she suddenly grinned. "C'mon, Clark, lighten up! I'd know you anywhere. Lane 'n Kent? The hottest team in town?" And she slowly winked at him.
It sunk in; she was playing him. "Lo-is! That was *not* funny!"
"Yes it was. But I guess I'd better be nice, so I can get you to tell me what I'm doing here. And what's going on."
"Lois, how many fingers am I holding up?" the second man said insistently.
"Bernie, you can give me a math test later. Right now, tell me what I'm doing here? And why I feel so good, when I somehow feel that I shouldn't."
The third person stepped into view. "Lois, what do you remember about…about what happened to you last?"
"…Karen?" Suddenly Lois's face showed alarm. "Karen, where are the kids? Are they all right? Did they make it? Are they…"
Karen smiled. "They're down the hall, asleep. Walter's keeping an eye on 'em. They're both fine."
She turned her attention back to Clark. "So, did Superman save the day? How did we get out of there, anyway? And why do I feel so good?" she repeated. "Last I remember, I had a broken arm, no feeling below my waist…" She paled. "What day is this? How much time has passed? Weeks? Months…"
"Honey, believe it or not, it all happened last night. As to why you feel so good…that would be because of the Walldecker Effect." He grinned.
Lois looked completely puzzled. "The Walldeck…oh. Resplendent Man."
"Who's Resplendent Man?" Karen wanted to know.
"A few years ago, there was this guy, Walter … William … whatever-his-name-was … Walldecker. He got my powers through a lightning strike. He went around performing super-rescues and charging people for them. He —"
"Wait a minute, Clark!" said Lois. "You're saying that *I'm* the latest recipient? Again?"
He grinned at her. "'Fraid so, honey. Whether you like it or not, Ultrawoman is back!"
"What's my physical condition? Am I glued back together?"
"Well, I haven't given you a full physical since the main invulnerability kicked in," said Bernie, "but short of that, and some bones that need to knit for a few more hours, I'd say you're as good as new!"
"Well, no time like the present for a trial run!" She began to float up off the table.
"Honey, *wait*…" It was too late. Lois let out a squeal and swiftly retreated to the corner of the room as she discovered that she was wearing only a hospital gown, and that it wasn't yet tied in the back.
"Well, Lois, I'd say you really *are* as good as new," said Dr. Klein as he and Karen finished the examination. "But don't do anything strenuous for the next few hours to give those fractures time to heal to full strength…"
Clark, wandering back over, added, "Not bad for someone who was clinically dead for over half an hour."
"*What*?" Lois was flabbergasted. "When?!"
"You died about twenty minutes before we were rescued," said Karen. "The lightning didn't start your revival for at least ten minutes after that. Lois, we —" she glanced at Clark, " — at least some of us — were positive that, even with the invulnerability transfer, you didn't stand a chance. Lois, you were…you were brain-dead!"
"Then…then how is this possible? Me…here, now?"
"We simply don't know," said Klein. "There's something truly incredible about superpowers, something that seems to defy science."
Lois was silent, lost in thought. Karen added, "Actually, it's a miracle that *any* of us got out of there. The odds were against us all the way."
Lois captured her gaze with a strange look. "Don't sell yourself short, Karen. You're *not* 'just a dumb nurse.' Never think that you are."
Karen's breath stopped, and her eyes slowly grew wide. Finally she said, "You *were* there…it was real…"
"Guess so," said Lois quietly. "At least for a while…"
"What are you two talking about?"
She turned to Clark. "That's for us girls to know, and for you to…" Then her eyes softened. "…To find out later. In private."
Clark suddenly got *the look*. "Oh, no, Clark, not *now*…" she wailed.
He smiled. "Nope, nothing like that. But two little girls are waking up, and I think you might want to play 'possum, so they can 'wake' you properly."
She grinned. "Great idea!" She promptly arranged her cover and closed her eyes, not moving.
Shortly, the door quietly opened, and Walter entered with the girls in tow. "Is it all right if they come in?" he asked in worried tones. "They insisted, and I thought…"
"Yeah, Walter, it's fine," said Clark softly. He knelt beside the girls and spoke quietly. "Kids, we think Mommy's going to be okay. But we need someone to wake her up…to give her a very *special* wake-up. All right?" They each nodded. Clark leaned forward, and very softly, he whispered something in both their ears. They smiled and nodded vigorously.
Lois couldn't follow what was being said, but she lay perfectly still, eyes firmly closed, and waited. There was a slight obstruction of the light against her eyelids, and then she felt two hands, one touching each of her cheeks. "Wake up, Mommy" said a voice. Before she could respond, another voice added, "Mama, *please* wake up…"
Surprised, she started to open her eyes…and jumped slightly at the sight before her. Her two daughters — how beautiful they were — were *both* hovering in the air above her, hand clasped in hand, their free hand each touching her cheek. Her breath went out in a gasp. "Am I…is this heaven? Are you angels now?"
"Nope," grinned Emma. Then she added, "But we're cherubs."
"Ya mean 'cheru*bims*'!"
"Whoa, *whoa*!" She reached up and hauled them both down into a ferocious hug. "What was *that* all about?" She turned her head and stared at Gracie. "And when did *you* learn to fly?"
"I didn't. Emma flies us *both*. But I can make fires with my eyes. Wanna see?"
Lois took a breath. "Not here; you'll burn the whole place down! You can show me when we get home…*in* the bathtub!" She looked pleadingly at Karen, who was nearest. "Okay, *somebody* tell me the whole story. I want it *in order*, every gory detail!"
"Um, I'm not sure that's a good idea. It gets pretty tense."
"Well, edit it if necessary. But I want it *all*."
They were all gathered around Lois's gurney, which had been wheeled back into the space illuminated by the examining light. Lois and the children were seated on the gurney while the other four stood near the upright carts. All were enjoying a delicious breakfast which had been provided courtesy of 'Superman Express.'
"So I was saved by a Bible story?" Lois asked as she set her tray back on the nearest cart.
"We *all* were. If I hadn't happened to do that research on cherubs —"
"Cheru*bims*," corrected Gracie, and she and Karen grinned at one another.
"Anyway, if it weren't for that, I doubt I would ever have gotten the idea for the signal."
"Yeah, and if it wasn't for *Gracie* having heat-vision — and not *telling* me," Emma glowered at Gracie, who made a face back at her, "we couldn't 'a set the tree on fire."
"And I'm sure," put in Clark, "that Walter and I would never have found you in time without it." He and Walter exchanged glances, each noticing the other cringe at the thought.
"But more than just being a 'flaming sword,' Lois," added Bernie, "that beacon was also your 'tree of life.' If it hadn't been for the lightning strike following the tree down — *and* for the tree's bright yellow light starting up your invulnerability — we wouldn't all be here talking about it."
Lois shivered at what a close thing it had all been.
"You know, Clark," put in Karen softly, "I owe you an apology. I was wrong in my diagnosis; you were right. If you had followed my advice…"
"No, Karen, you were absolutely right on all counts. You 'gave me your best counsel,' as you put it…and then you let me make my own decision. In any other circumstance, yours would have been the right diagnosis. You should just keep sticking to your training." He put an arm around her shoulder, and gave her a quick hug. "You're an incredible person. Don't forget it."
Lois turned to Dr. Klein. "I keep meaning to ask you, Bernie. Is this superpower transfer a permanent thing? I mean, *should* Ultrawoman try making a comeback? I'd hate to have the powers fail at a critical moment —"
"Lois, I honestly don't know. I'm sure that they're good for a year or two at least; but I can't say whether they'll be permanent." He paused thoughtfully, and then walked over to a desk and, opening a drawer and taking out a pad of paper, jotted something on it. Tearing off the top sheet he walked back to Lois, looking extremely pleased with himself. "Here you are. As your doctor, I want you to follow this prescription exactly. If you have any further trouble, come see me in a year or two." He handed her the paper with a smirk.
She read it aloud. "Booster shots every six months…" She stared at him, and then dissolved into mirth. Still chuckling, she added, "I guess it couldn't hurt. So long as I'm invulnerable, lightning isn't going to hurt me; I guess it could only help!" She glanced at Clark. "How about it, Big Guy? Are you game?"
"Lois, I *always* enjoy sparking with you…" He stopped and ducked his head, grinning at the groans all around.
Gracie said to Emma, "What're they talkin' about?" thus provoking another round of laughter.
Clark finally turned to Lois. "Honey, there's something I need to tell you. When I went out for breakfast, I noticed some security people gathered around your Jeep, so I made excuses and ferried it home." He seemed to fumble for words. "Um — honey, it's a total loss. I know how much you love that car; it's been like a member of the family since before we were married. I wish that there were a way to…"
"Don't worry, Clark. That car saved our lives. It made the 'ultimate sacrifice' for us, and I'm not complaining a bit. But I *do* want to replace it right away, within the next few weeks if we can; our other car just can't keep up with a growing family. But I don't think I want to go with another Jeep. I was thinking about something more modern, more up-with-the-times."
She saw Clark's eyes light up, and she couldn't resist. "Clark…how would you like it if we drove to work every day in a military Humvee?"
He stared at her in total shock. Then he caught the glint in her eye. "Lo-is! You are *so* evil!"
"Cla-ark!" she whined, mimicking him. "You are *so* easy!"
Clark glanced at Karen; she seemed to be almost asleep where she stood. "My gosh, Karen, I just realized that you've been up the whole night! I know you've got to be dead on your feet." He turned so that he was addressing all of them. "This has been…there are no words to describe what we've all been through. We all came within a hairsbreadth of losing either our own lives, or the lives of those very dear to us. And we can never tell anyone about this; we just have to keep it among ourselves." He turned to Walter. "You once pledged a life-debt to my daughter —" his eyes indicated Emma "— because she saved your life. On behalf of Lois and my daughters, I want to make the same promise. If there's anything you *ever* need … Bernie, Walter … and especially Karen … You just need to name it."
"Thanks, Clark; you're a gentleman as well as a superhero. But right now, I'd just be happy with a night's sleep." Then a look of distress covered her features. "Oh, no. I just realized, our car … our stuff's all up at the cabin!"
"That's easy!" said Clark. "How about if I just fly the two of you up to the cabin and leave you there. There won't be anyone to disturb you; you can get all the sleep you want!"
"Honey," interjected Lois, "if I'm counting right, this is only Saturday morning. After I rest up for a day, we could join them up there tomorrow, and still have tomorrow and Monday to finish our 'long weekend' together." She turned to Walter and Karen. "How about it? Or have you had enough of the Kents for a while?"
Walter and Karen exchanged glances. They seemed to reach a decision; Karen turned back to Lois. "That sounds like a great plan…on one condition…"
"Ultrawoman's going to teach me to fly. The way Superlady taught Gracie."
"You got it. And Karen…that offer is good anytime. From now on."
"Um…" Emma was looking uncomfortable. "Dad, Mom…"
"So now it's 'Mom,' hmm?"
"Yeah, well…see, that's all *part* of it," said Emma. "I'm getting too *old* to call you 'Mama' anymore. Just like I'm too old for a name like 'Superlady'. It was great when I was a little kid —" Lois and Clark shared a private smile, "— but it's a dumb name. I don't want it anymore; I want to find something better."
Emma felt a tug on her sleeve. She turned to Gracie, whose eyes were shining with eagerness. "Then can I have it?"
Emma stared at her, then slowly grinned and held up a hand. "Gimme five."
"Hold out your hand, with your palm up. Like this." She demonstrated with her other hand. Gracie did so, looking puzzled, and Emma slapped Gracie's palm with her upraised hand.
"Ow! Why'd you do that?"
"Now you do it to me." She held out her hand. Hesitantly, Gracie executed the other half of the ceremony. "Okay, it's yours. I just gave it to you."
The light began to dawn, and Gracie looked around in solemn wonder, as though something infinitely important had just concluded.
"You know," said Clark to Emma, "I was thinking. Your first superpower was the ability to fly. You might want to take the name of a bird as your superhero name — but not just *any* bird," he hastened on as she began to look doubtful. "I was thinking about a particular bird. Some people think that its song is the most beautiful birdsong in the entire world. They say that the song fills you with love, and hope."
"Um…it sounds nice. But I dunno if I want to be a bird…"
"Well, I think that Karen could tell you a lot more about this." He winked at Karen.
"Me?" Karen looked non-plussed; then she suddenly saw where Clark was headed with this. Smiling at him, and mouthing a silent 'thank you,' she continued to Emma. "Actually, I can tell you a lot about another woman who had this bird's name.
"She was a very special person, a person who dedicated her whole life to saving people's lives. She figured out how to make sick people get well faster. She taught doctors and hospitals owners that giving sick people lots of sunlight and fresh air — the same thing that birds thrive on — made the people recover more quickly. She taught that keeping hospitals clean and tidy kept diseases from spreading to other people.
"She used to walk around every night with a small lantern to check on all the people in the hospital, to see if they needed anything. People began to call her the 'Lady with the Lamp.'"
"Yes," put in Dr. Klein, "but they had another name for her, too: the 'Angel of Mercy'!" As Emma's eyes grew round, he continued, "And she started the first modern school for nurses. Did you know that Karen, here, graduated from one of those schools?"
"I wanna be like her!" said Emma in awe. "Who was she?! What was the bird's name?"
And thus was born the world's newest superhero. And she dedicated her career not so much to Truth and Justice, as to Mercy — to the saving of lives.
And her name, of course, was Nightingale.
Dedicated, with love and admiration,
To my mom,
Elizabeth McAllister, R.N.