2/18/07

Kandor – Chapter 5

"Fuck," swore Lois, as she shook her throbbing hand. What was the saying in the 'good old days' when you were about to spank a naughty child? 'This is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you.' It certainly was true when you slapped Superman. It felt just like slapping a piece of granite, thought Lois, as she continued to shake her stinging hand.

She looked at his face and his expression said he knew he had deserved the blow. And that expression seemed to reach her far better than his 'I'm sorry' words had and she felt some of her anger abate.

"Why did you leave?" she asked with some anger still in her tone and barely biting back the 'me' at the last second. Standing here, in front of a cabin full of reporters, wasn't the right time to reveal too many secrets – both Superman's and her own. Hopefully, at least some of them would think the question was related to that stupid Pulitzer Prize-winning article.

Clark looked back at her and understood her anger. But he also felt the urgent need to get back to the Fortress; Lyla and his Mom could be in just as much danger as Lois had been.

Slowly, Clark leaned forward and moved his head down beside Lois' on the side away from the cabin's other occupants. Then he spoke in a barely audible whisper.

"Lois, the energy pulse which almost caused the plane to crash also affected much of the Northern Hemisphere. It appears to have originated up at the Fortress and I don't know how or why. My Mom and some others are up there. I have to go see if they are in danger. Come with me and once I am certain everyone is out of danger, we can sit down and talk."

There had been a time when she would have dropped everything and gone with him. But her life wasn't that simple anymore.

"I . . . I can't," she whispered back. "I have to pick Jason up from school."

Clark leaned back and then quirked a questioning eyebrow at her.

"My son," she responded to the unasked question.

"You're married?" he asked; doubting he'd been able to prevent the shock from showing on his face. In the back of his mind he had somehow assumed Lois had been waiting for him the whole time. However five years was a long time. He knew this should make telling her about Lyla easier, yet still his first reaction was a sense of betrayal. Did that mean his feelings for her were that strong?

Lois shook her head. "No, but we have been living together for a long time."

Clark wondered for a moment who it was. The first names from her past that popped into his head were Oliver and Bruce. Lois always seemed drawn to men with wealth, power, and more than a hint of danger. Or was it the other way around and they were drawn to her; himself included?

He was tempted to ask, but decided she would tell him when she was ready, or he would find out some other way. So instead he continued, "Can I offer you a quick lift back to Metropolis before I head north? I don't want you to be late picking up your son."

"Ride back? Where are we?" Lois asked.

Clark shrugged and for a moment she saw the teenaged boy she had first met so many years before.

"Smallville, where else?"

Lois couldn't stop a small grin. "Just like old times."

Then she gave a small nod and continued. "Yeah, I could use a lift. My car is at Metropolis airport."

Clark quickly bent and lifted her into his arms. As he turned towards the door, the cabin filled with shouts of: 'Superman', 'Wait Superman', and 'Where have you been, Superman?'

Pausing briefly in the doorway, Clark turned and answered using his deep authoritative Superman voice. "The energy pulse was widespread and affected more than just this airplane. Many others need my help. There will be time for interviews later."

Then carefully twisting his body to pass through the door without banging Lois' head, he launched into the air, pushing hard and fast towards Metropolis.

As the landscape rushed passed below them, Lois tried to suppress the strong urge she felt to snuggle tighter into his arms. Flying was always such an exhilarating rush, she thought after five years she had gotten over it, but now once more aloft she knew she hadn't. And feeling his arms around her, she also knew she wasn't completely over Clark either.

It seemed like only a handful of seconds had passed before she could see the Metropolis skyline growing in the distance. So she only had a few more seconds to decide what to tell Clark about Jason. For obviously from his uncomprehending expression when she had mentioned their son's name, Clark had no idea about him. From his comment about Martha being at the Fortress, he had seen his Mother since his return, but apparently Martha had decided to leave the telling to her. Lois wanted, no needed to get things out in the open, yet it didn't seem fair to just blurt it out when Clark had to immediately leave for the Fortress. No, he had gone five years without knowing, a few more hours wouldn't make any difference.

The 'The blue Audi over there,' direction from Lois turned out to be the first thing either of them said after leaving the grounded airplane.

Quickly, Clark landed beside the car and lowered Lois to the ground. Then he simply stood there for a moment hesitating.

"Clark, we really need to talk. How about coming to my house for dinner tonight? You can meet Jason."

Clark looked briefly at the sky and realized there was plenty of time to resolve things at the Fortress. "Okay, what time?"

"Let's say arrive at seven-thirty and we'll eat at eight. Oh, and how about dressing casual," she concluded with a pointed glance down to his gray Superman suit.

"Yes, ma'am," Clark responded with a hint of a grin. "Would it be okay if I brought Mom? I haven't spent enough time with her either."

Lois nodded.

"And your address?"

"4320 Riverside Drive."

"Okay, I will see you at seven-thirty. If something comes up, I will try to give you a call." Clark turned to go, but just before launching himself into the air, he paused and turned back. "Oh, one of the things I meant to ask you. Do you have any word on Chloe? My mom told me she has been missing since the Taiwan invasion."

Lois shook her head. "I have been pinging all of my contacts every couple of months, but nothing. There have been rumors of slave labor camps, but I can't even verify those stories."

"Well, when things calm down, we will have to put our heads together and see what we can find out," answer Clark with a tone of voice that sounded more like Clark Kent, Ace Reporter than like Clark Kent, Superman.

Lois couldn't suppress a snort. "When things calm down? If she is alive, I'm afraid Chloe will be old and gray before that day arrives."

"Yeah, you're right," Clark answered with a sigh. "I have been back less than twelve hours and it is already just like old times."

Then Clark looked her in the eyes. "I have to go, Lois."

"I know. Go save the world and I'll see you tonight."

Clark nodded and then leapt into the sky. In less than two seconds he dwindled to a tiny dot and disappeared.

Lois watched until he was gone before finally lowering her eyes. Five years of waiting were almost over. In a few hours they would sit down thrash things out until everything was out in the open: why Clark had left without a word, telling him he had a son, and deciding how they were going to proceed from here.

Feeling a sudden lightening of her spirits in a way she hadn't felt in years, Lois reached down and pulled the car's door handle. Locked. Quickly she felt her outfit for pockets. None. Damn, her keys were still back in her brief case on the plane. In frustration she kicked the car door. Hard. Finally, certain she had broken at least one toe, she hobbled off towards the terminal in search of a phone. Where was Superman when you really needed him?

In less than fifteen seconds, Clark was just over three thousand miles north of Metropolis. The Fortress came into view and as he decelerated he gave the structure a thorough once over in every portion of the visual spectrum he could access – infrared, visible, x-ray, and many wavelengths in-between. None of them showed anything out of the ordinary, not that even his powerful senses could penetrate very far into the dense crystalline structure.

Sweeping downward, he twisted through the long, winding, maze-like passage which these days gave entry to the interior. Before his sojourn among the stars, he had caused the crystal structure to reconfigure and block the original ground-level entrance to prevent casual entry by unsuspecting visitors. The Fortress harbored many secrets that could be lethal, or worse, for unwary humans.

Finally, the passage he had been following opened up onto the main central room of the structure. Here lay the ruins of the central podium and its crystal command system through which most of the great structure's memory and analytical matrices had once been accessed. As he landed he couldn't help but remember how after years of hearing his father's voice through the auspices of his original tiny ship and then the ancient installation buried deep in the old Indian cave system, it wasn't until he first stood at the Fortress' podium that he had received a visual representation of his biological father, Jor El. But ever since the encounter with Zod in this chamber, his father's image and voice had been silent. Had the damage caused by the removal and then restoration of Clark's powers permanently destroyed some portion of the Fortress' memory system beyond the simple destruction of the primary podium?

Clark knew the control crystals used a variation of holographic storage techniques. Since the whole Fortress was a giant crystal structure, it seemed logical that the Fortress itself would act as a redundant backup for the information contained in the control crystals. He hadn't yet figured out how to even assert this backup existed, yet alone access it, but now that Kandor and its Kryptonian technology were available things might be within his reach. He hoped so, because there were things he would really like to talk to Jor El about.

However almost as soon as Clark had stepped passed the ruins of the podium, he had regulated this research task to the long list of other things he wanted to pursue when he had some free time and turned his attention to the problem at hand.

Moving to the opposite side of the chamber from where he had entered, Clark stepped into another passageway leading to the auxiliary chamber where he kept the large bottle containing Kandor.

After barely pausing to scan the sensor panel which continuously monitored the environmental conditions inside the bottle and which showed everything to be normal, Clark moved directly to the Gerry-rigged comm-station which allowed him to connect into Kandor's communications network. Immediately he tried to reach Lyla.

"Thank Rao, you're okay, Kal. I have been so worried," were the first words out of Lyla's mouth as her image coalesced on the display.

Clark couldn't help but give a small sigh of relief seeing she was alright. And it didn't hurt that he could see his Mother standing in the background, an equally worried look visibly fading from her face.

"No, I am the one who has been worried. The energy pulse covered almost a quarter of the planet. And when I learned the epicenter was here, well, very scary thoughts have been running through my head about what I might find."

"We are all fine, Kal. Brainiac's bottle is apparently insulated against this type of energy. But the sensors which I have been using to monitor the miniaturization device went absolutely crazy at the peak. That's why I have been so worried about you."

"Do you have any idea what happened?" asked Clark now that his immediate fears for the safety of Lyla and his Mom were abating.

"I think so. Can you hear anything different about the Fortress?"

Hear anything different? Clark had inspected the structure using his vastly extended visual range, but hadn't thought about simply listening to it. But what was the acoustic spectrum except the extremely long wavelength end of the overall spectrum of all things which function under wave theory.

Closing his eyes, Clark focused on what he could hear. And now that he was trying, a faint sound could be heard. Well, not so much a steady sound, but more like the vibrations you heard from a bell a few seconds after it had been struck by the hammer. The tone was in an overall sense very slowly decaying away, but it also had a harmonic component which sometimes cancelled and sometimes amplified.

Clark tried to explain what he was hearing in words to the image of Lyla on the screen, but didn't feel he was doing a very good job. But apparently his response was more or less what she was expecting because she quickly started nodding her head and then cut in on his rambling description.

"Yes, that is close enough," she interrupted. "What my models are showing me is that the miniaturization prototype is not anywhere near one hundred percent efficient. It leaks a lot of power, but only in a couple of narrow frequency bands. Unfortunately, one of these bands falls right on the harmonic frequency the Fortress is most sensitive to. So when the miniaturization device is used, it starts the Fortress to resonating. Now if the Fortress was located on land this probably wouldn't be a problem. But anchored out here in the Artic Ocean, the Fortress starts absorbing power and energy from the movement of the ocean currents through the underwater portion of supporting structure. Over time this energy field continues to build until it reaches a level it can no longer sustain and then the whole structure 'pulses' to dump the energy."

Clark rolled Lyla's comments around in his head for a moment. "So, you're saying we risk another pulse whenever we use the miniaturization device to move people back and forth between here and Kandor?"

Lyla shook her head. "No, not every time, but close. It appears to take three activations of the device to exceed the threshold. And even then the onset is not immediate. In this case, the pulse occurred twenty-three minutes after the third time you used the device."

"But I used it a lot more than three times during the voyage back to Earth," said Clark looking for a loophole in her theory.

"Well, your spaceship has a significantly different shape and is also much smaller than the Fortress; both these factors will greatly affect the specific frequency to which its crystal structure would be most sensitive. Also don't forget we were cruising through a void during the trip to Earth, so there wasn't an ambient energy field available to amplify the effect like the ocean located below the Fortress."

Clark slowly nodded. He was going to have to take Lyla's word on the matter. Being stranded on Earth, he hadn't had access to tele-learning machines during his formative years like every youth growing up in Kandor did. The level of math he had seen Lyla do in her head without accessing any outside aids, not even pencil and paper, was down right intimidating.

"So, what do we do now?" he asked.

As he watched her image on the display, Lyla appeared to stare off into the distance lost in thought for almost a minute. Finally, she blinked and refocused her gaze back on Clark.

"Kal, I think I can construct a device that will block the leakage coming from the miniaturization device from reaching the Fortress' crystal structure or at least transform the energy to a frequency band which is less harmful. However to do that I am going to need to rig up some better sensory equipment than is currently in-place in addition to setting up the actual equipment which will create the counter-field. Since all of the required equipment is going to have to be brought from Kandor to the Fortress through the miniaturization device anyway, I might as well come along for it will be a lot easier than trying to talk you through it remotely."

"Is it safe to use the device again or should I just go ahead and relocate it somewhere else first?" asked Clark.

Lyla shrugged. "It's your call, but my calculations show a less than 0.4 chance of the next usage instigating another pulse."

A less than one percent risk seemed tolerable to Clark. "Okay, let's just go ahead and try your approach here. The Fortress is the most secure location I know and I would rather not relocate the miniaturization device if it can be avoided. How long will it be until you can be ready?"

"I should be able to gather all of the equipment I need in about two hours. Then I will need another two hours to ferry it up to the exit point above Kandor's artificial sun. Throw in a little cushion and let's call it five hours until I will be ready to exit Kandor."

When Lyla paused, Martha jumped into the conversation for the first time. "Ah, Clark. If both you and Lyla going to be out there, I would just as soon leave Kandor, too. I have things I should be attending to back in Smallville."

Clark nodded. "Sure, Mom. Unless Lyla needs an awful lot of equipment, Lyla, you and the equipment should all be able to use the miniaturization machine in one pass."

Lyla glanced back over her shoulder at Martha. "It should be fine. All of the equipment I need will fit in a couple of travel bags. Wow, did I just say travel bags? What an interesting term from someone who has been trapped in a large bottle her entire life and has never been more than sixty miles from her home."

"Well," began Martha, as she reached out and lightly touched the younger woman's shoulder. "As long as you're going to be up in the Fortress, you and Clark are going to have to make a little time to explore some of our world. It can be a pretty nice place most of the time."

Lyla nodded and when she turned back towards Clark, he could see, even through the display that her eyes were glistening with excitement.

Clark smiled and suddenly felt a small lump in his throat. "Perhaps this will soon be your world, too, Lyla."

For a moment it looked like Lyla wouldn't be able to speak, but finally with a single nod she said. "Kal, we will see you in five hours."

As the display went dark, Clark stared at it for a moment daydreaming about showing Lyla his adoptive world. He had thought of this day often during the final months of the journey back to Earth after he and Lyla had fallen in love and now it was almost here.

But after staring at the blank display for a few seconds, it sank in that he had five hours to kill and nothing pressing to do at the Fortress during that time. And there were certainly other people out there who had been affected by the pulse and who could benefit from his help. He hated to be out of contact with Lyla for that long again, but for the moment there was no helping it. The Fortress had originally never been equipped for communication with the outside world. After the events where Zod had taken control of the planet while he and Lois had been blissfully ignorant up here at the Fortress, he had at least made provisions to monitor the satellite news feeds by placing a small mirror in orbit near one of the primary satellites so a small beam would be diverted up to this remote artic region. But since he had been the Fortress' sole occupant, having two-way communication capability had never been an issue. Now with Lyla and all of the other Kandorians up here, he definitely could use a way of communicating without always having to resort to flying back up here.

As Clark leapt back into the air to head back south, he decided another conversation with Carrie, Jimmy Olsen's AI associate was in order. Perhaps by now she had uncovered some word about Chloe. And she might be able to help with setting up the whole communications thing, as well as help with several other things that came to mind.

The young girl followed the burly orderly down the antiseptic gray corridor. At first glance few would guess she was only thirteen. No, as a result of an early growth spurt she must have inherited from her father's side of the family, she already stood five foot eight. And thankfully, that was the only thing in the 'looks' department she had received from her father. For one of his three most frequent topics during their bi-weekly discussions were his trials and tribulations as a teenager at Excelsior Prep. If it had been that hard for him as a boy, she wondered, what would it have been like for her if she had inherited his trademark baldness?

Fortunately her 'looks' had obviously come from her mother - from her thick black hair to the hint of an oriental cast around her dark green eyes. As they passed a tall mirror, her right hand reached up and swept her hair back away from her eyes in manner that anyone who knew her mother would have instantly recognized.

But it wasn't the near supermodel beauty or the poise only a privileged upbringing could bestow that made her seem years older than her true age. No, it was simply her eyes. On good days they always glowed with a brilliant intelligence far exceeding anyone twice her age. And on bad days they could darken until they looked like something almost alien to the human race.

Fortunately for everyone around her, today looked to be a good day as she was in an exceptionally fine mood. Several projects she had been orchestrating for many months were coming nicely to fruition. And more importantly, the dark one had finally returned.

She was almost humming to herself as the orderly stopped in front of the door to the visiting room she always used during her visits. She waited calmly, using the time to go over her mental list of things she needed to discuss, as the man pulled out a large ring of old-fashioned keys to unlock the door.

Pulling the door open, he courteously nodded for her to enter, carefully keeping his face neutral. He was new having only started a week earlier, but already he had heard the rumors about this girl - the stories of an orderly who had made inappropriate comments to the girl and who had simply vanished the following night. He had no idea if they were true, but one glance at her eyes had convinced him he didn't ever want her attention focused on him.

The girl swept into the nearly barren room. No windows or pictures adorned its walls to break the gray monotony. The room's sole furnishings were a heavy wooden table and two straight back chairs on opposing sides. Her father was already slouched in the chair on the far side of the table having been led in from the depths of the prison's psych ward through a door in the opposite wall.

He was staring listlessly down at his gloved hands when she entered and didn't even acknowledge her presence until she reached the table and pulled the chair out with a squeal of wood on linoleum. For a moment she felt her temper begin to flare, the Doctors were supposed to reduce his level of meds before her visits.

When his eyes looked up and he recognized her, his face quickly became more animated.

"Hello, Lena," he began with a hint of a whine to his voice. "You were supposed to visit yesterday. You know how your visits are the only thing I have to look forward to in this place."

"I am sorry, father," she began politely. "You remember me telling you about Miss Cavendish, my science teacher at Midvale? Well, she hit us with a pop assignment in class yesterday morning that had to be done by today and I simply couldn't get away. Please remember how you always say getting a good education comes first."

As her father nodded sullenly, she couldn't help but think about the real reason she had been delayed; the contents of the slim wooden box she had laid on the edge of the table had not been ready in time. She hated to use her father as a guinea pig for the second stage of her AI experiments, but if they were successful, she might be able to use them to allow him to someday leave this facility.

And for once the delay had turned out to be fortuitous, after the events of the morning there were questions she needed to ask him about his previous encounters with Superman. The real challenge was going to be to get her father to talk without his dropping into a blind rage, as usually happened at the mere mention of the dark one's name.

Well, no point in beating around the bush, she decided. "Did the power outage hit here this morning, Father?"

"Yeah, but the emergency generators kicked in only a few seconds later. It was not enough time to do anything useful, if only there had been a little forewarning."

Even with all the meds they fed him, he still seemed to be in a perpetual 'escape mode' mentality, Lena thought, once again amazed at his will power.

"Did you hear the other news? NASA almost lost the shuttle and its mothership. And they would have, if 'HE' hadn't shown up."

Her father's eyes looked sharply towards hers and for a moment it felt almost like her old Dad was back – the man from the good old days of her childhood before the dark one had caused the death of her mother. Oh how she wanted to see Superman in Hell, perhaps even more than her father did.

"He's back? How long?"

Lena shook her head. "I have no idea. This is the first public report of him in five years. However with his need for the limelight, I would guess he hasn't been back long, perhaps a few days while he waited for the right opportunity to make a grand entrance."

She paused a moment for dramatic effect before continuing. "Actually, I did a little research into the rolling black-out that hit this morning and which affected much of the northern hemisphere. It apparently started at one central location and then propagated outwards. The origin point was way up north on the ice pack over the Arctic Ocean. I remember your stories of his Fortress of Solitude being located in that general area. Do you think he caused the blackout and the danger to the shuttle just so he could save it?"

Lena watched her father's face and saw that she had used the right hook to feed on her father's obsession that Superman was here to conquer the human race. She wasn't sure she shared that believe, not that it mattered. All she cared was that he had caused the death of her mother and therefore he had to be made to pay for his actions, whether they were intentional or not.

"Yes, it would be just like him to pull a stunt like that to convince the ignorant masses he is here merely to help. It makes you wonder how many of the other big things he did were also staged. I mean look at General Zod. The recording I saw about him up at the Fortress made him out to be the terror of the Universe, but a simple trick defeated him. Was that all part of some on-going Kryptonian plan to build up Superman's image as a savior and lull the planet into a false sense of security?"

As always, Lena felt this strange twinge in her heart at the mention of Zod's name, as though she had some unexplained connection to him. She even had a photo of him hidden in her jewelry box back at school. Once in awhile she would take it out and stare at it. She had first discovered the photo at an online website dedicated to the battle in Metropolis between Zod and Superman. At first she thought she had been drawn to it because Zod and Superman were locked in combat and Superman's face had just a hint of fear about the eyes; an expression she wanted to see again just before she destroyed him. However the longer she had the photo, the more she felt drawn to the image of Zod, as though he had played or would play an important part in her life. But how could that be possible? When he had arrived on earth, she was eight and had already been living in Midvale attending the private girls' school for almost two years. She knew she hadn't met him then. Had he been to Earth on an earlier occasion? Before she was old enough to truly remember?

Deviating from her plan for this conversation, Lena asked. "Father, was Zod here another time, before the battle with Superman?"

Lex Luthor looked at his daughter and his mind felt clearer and sharper than it had in years. He had long wondered if this moment would come, but now that she was older and had directly asked, perhaps it was time.

"Yes, no, well sort of. I have only the vaguest recollection of the events and most of what I know came from conversations with your mother. There was this professor, a Milton Fine, who secretly had some connection to Zod and his Kryptonian technology. He did something to me, injected me with chemicals or exposed me to radiation or whatever. Anyway for a brief time it gave me abilities similar to Superman: speed, strength, healing, flight and all the rest. The feeling was unbelievably exhilarating and intoxicating. However it wasn't done for my benefit, but only to prepare my body to become the permanent host for Zod. And Zod's spirit did take possession of my body and during that time my memories are a complete blank. It only lasted a couple of days and I am not certain how he was forced out of my body. Anyway that is why the answer to your question is sort of yes and no; he wasn't physically here, but sort of in spirit he was."

Lena stared at her father. This story was something he had never mentioned before. "When was this?"

Her father stared back at her. "The infamous Black Thursday when power outages and rioting broke out all over the world."

Lena had thought she had known the significance of that day, but this turned everything upside down. Way back in the 1960's there had been a famous blackout in New York. Nine months later an explosion of new births had occurred which was attributed to the event; Hollywood had even made a movie about it starring Doris Day. After she had learned at the age of ten about sex, conception, and how babies were truly made, she had done the math and knew she had been born nine months to the day after Black Thursday. She had thought at the time it was cool to know that an earth-shatter event had been involved in her conception and had imagined her parents in some glamorous Hollywood-style hideaway while the world appeared to be crumbling around them. But now suddenly she had learned her father had been possessed by the spirit of Zod on Black Thursday and had been given all the powers of Superman. Did that explain some of the strange things she had experienced since reaching puberty, things she had been keeping secret from everyone?

Even her dearest friend and confidant, her longtime roommate Linda Lee, only knew about a few of her newly acquired abilities and even she didn't know her true name was Lena Luthor. No, like everyone else at Midvale she only knew her as Lena Thorul, the name her great aunt Nell had used to enroll her six months after her mother's death and her father's imprisonment in an attempt to protect her from the stigma now associated with the name Luthor.

"The Black Thursday which occurred exactly nine months before I was born? How could you not tell me about this?" Lena responded with a little of the Luthor temper showing through.

Her father gave a small shrug. "For a long time you were too young to understand. And then after all of the years, well it seemed best to leave it buried in the past."

Lena almost wanted to cry out in frustration. If she had know, it would have made the past couple of years at least understandable if not any easier to bear. For a moment she wanted to confess everything she had been experiencing, the powers she had acquired. But then she remembered as long as her father was in here, there would always be the risk that some medication they gave him would make him say something he shouldn't. This was simply one more reason why she needed to proceed forward with her plans in the hopes of one day being able to safely remove him and have some long overdue father-daughter conversations.

"Perhaps you are right and it should be left in the past, Father. Now, since HE is back and since this morning's events seem to be tied to his Fortress up in the Arctic, please refresh my memory about what you know of the Fortress. I think a return expedition up there might be warranted."

Her father nodded and spent the next ten minutes describing what he knew about the Fortress from his two visits up there, the first time when he had discovered and explored an unoccupied Fortress and the second time when he had been flown up there as a guest/prisoner of Zod.

When he finished speaking Lena slowly nodded, it gave her plenty of food for thought. She might just have to make a little trip up there herself and sooner rather than later.

Slowly sliding the slim wooden box across the table, she finally got to the true reason for this particular visit. "Father, I have a small gift for you. It took a lot of time and effort to convince the Doctors to agree, but I think it was worth the effort and I hope you will come to appreciate it."

Lex stared at the case for a moment before reaching out and pulling it the rest of the way. It was a simple box made from unadorned cherry wood. And it was small, only eight inches wide by four inches deep and less than three-quarters of an inch thick. A small gold clasp held the two halves together. Slowly the thumb of his gloved left hand pressed the detent and the clasp sprang open. Rotating the cover up about the rear-mounted hinges revealed an interior compartment fitted with the standard components of the audio and visual gear almost everyone in the world had adopted. In one compartment was a month's supply of the contact lens everyone wore that didn't on the surface look any different than the daily-wear contacts people had been using for over twenty-five years. In the other compartment was a pair of tiny earbuds which fit discretely into the ear canals.

After inspecting the contents of the box, Lex looked across at his daughter. "So you thought it was time I joined everyone in the second decade of the twenty-first century?"

Lena briefly shook her head before flashing a small grin. "Come on, Father. It is the third decade of the twenty-first century and has been for months." Then putting a more serious expression on her face she continued. "I thought giving you selected access to the outside world would make you happy. Oh, the Doctors insisted on some restrictions, but it is a lot better than nothing. Why don't you go ahead and give them a try, while I am here to help with any questions."

Lex looked thoughtfully at his daughter for a moment. He had long claimed to be 'The World's Greatest Criminal Mind', but from what he had seen over the past few years, Lena might simply be the World's greatest mind – criminal or otherwise. However he could still read her well enough to know this was all part of one of her schemes, yet he had faith she would never to anything which would directly harm him. So with hardly any hesitation he removed the topmost pair of contacts from the box and then started to ease the black glove off of his left hand.

When the glove finally came off, Lena tried to avert her eyes, but found it was impossible to completely look away. Her father's hand at first glance looked like it was covered with old, poorly healed third-degree burns as if it had at one time been held in a deep-fat fryer for several minutes. But even in the well-lit visiting room only a few moments of observation were sufficient to reveal the faint green glow his hand produced. No, his injury hadn't come from anything has mundane as burning oil, but had instead been another consequence of the night they had lost her mother. For after finding Lana's lifeless remains, Lex had gone berserk and had ultimately hack Metallo's heart out with an axe. Unfortunately, the artificial device had been booby-trapped and when he had triumphantly lifted his trophy it had literally exploded in his hands embedding thousands of microscopic shards of Kryptonite. Now only the special lead-impregnated gloves kept the radiation from spreading to the rest of his body or to those around him.

Lena watched her father carefully inserted a contact lens in each eye. As he sat there repeatedly blinking as his eyes adjusted, she knew the contacts were simultaneously going through their initialization sequence. The contacts were a hybrid design – part nano-machine and part living organism. They were effectively inert while in their protective packaging, which was why only contacts actively being worn had been affected by the morning's energy pulse. The saline content of the human tears activated them and once activated the biological portion of the contacts converted protein molecules found in tears into minute electrical currents to power the nano-machine components which provided the visual displays.

"Don't forget the earpieces," prompted Lena as her father started to lean back in his seat.

The earbuds were purely mechanical devices. They used the tiny pressure differentials generated by sound waves entering the ear for power. This power tap attenuated the sound level actually reaching the ear drum by a mere twenty percent which with the nonlinear nature of human hearing was barely perceptible to most people. Besides handling the audio for the system, both sending and receiving, the earbuds also contained the necessary transmitters and receivers for connecting into the all encompassing Internet 4.0 network.

"Well, father, is it working?"

"I don't know. Am I supposed to be seeing an annoying blinking orange light in the corner of my eye?"

"That is just a reminder that you haven't initialized the system to synch it to your voice yet. Every time you put in a fresh pair of contacts or earbuds you have to say the keyword phrase so it will learn your voice and only accept inputs from you and not from everyone talking within audio range."

"So what is the keyword phrase?" Lex asked.

"Well, I can't say it out loud or it will lock onto my voice rather than yours. So your keyword phrase is inscribed on the inside cover of the box," answered Lena with an evil, malicious grin on her face.

Lex picked up the box, studied the inside cover, and then a matching grin spread across his face. Throwing his daughter a quick wink, he said the engraved words out loud. "I am going to fucking destroy Superman." Within three seconds the blinking orange light faded away.

When nothing else appeared for ten seconds, Lex asked, "So what now?"

"Ask for any information you want and see what happens."

It only took a couple of seconds for Lex to come up with his first question. "Show me a detailed schematic of this prison complex."

In less than five seconds a three dimensional model of the prison appeared. It hovered six inches above the table and looked perfectly solid like he could simply reach out and touch it. When he reached his right hand out to where it would have touched the nearest miniature guard tower if it had been real, detailed information about that specific tower sprang to life – when it was built, its exact dimensions, the fields of coverage for its three searchlights, the locations of its power circuits and almost everything else he would need to know to plan a successful escape.

Lena smiled at the look of concentration on her father's face as his eyes darted about an object only someone wearing the second generation contacts could see. Working on escape plans would help keep him occupied for the next few weeks.

"If you phrase your requests properly, you should also be able to get live data from all of the surveillance cameras, too, if you want," stated Lena. "But the system is capable of much more."

Lex looked up from the model prison to his daughter. He had the feeling she was about to divulge the real reason she wanted him to have these new toys. "So what else can it do?"

"Oh, lots of things. If you are bored, you can use it to alter how people appear to you. Why don't you tell it to give me blue skin, for example."

"Give Lena blue skin," Lex dutifully echoed. As the exposed portions of her hands and face appeared to turn a vivid blue, he continued, "That seems like an odd way to suggest using the device. What is the real purpose of those keywords?"

"Ahh, you know me too well," Lena answered. "I thought this next part would make a pleasant surprise. Even if you know something is coming, I think you will still find it pleasant."

Just then Lex heard a knock at the door through which his daughter had entered. At first he assumed it meant the time for Lena's visit was up. But when the door didn't open and she made no move to respond, he asked, "Who's at the door?"

Lena smiled. "A visitor for you. Hmm, here, let me get it for you." She got up, walked to the door, and pulled it open while carefully stepping to the side.

Lex watched as the door to the hallway slowly opened. A woman's silhouette filled the doorway, but before her face fully registered, his eyes were drawn passed her. For the hallway which should have been visible had been replaced by a view of his beloved castle back in Smallville as seen from just inside the front gate. And the image he saw looked perfectly real.

Then when the woman took a first tentative step into the room his eyes were drawn to her face. And tough Lex Luthor, who had tried to kill millions of people by hijacking two nuclear missiles, nearly fainted in shock. Walking into the room was his long dead wife, Lana. And whatever technology the contact lens system used, she didn't look like a simulated image on a TV screen or a computer monitor, but rather she looked like the living, vibrant woman he had married.

Lex knew it had to be a fake, but that didn't stop him from jumping up from his chair and striding briskly across the room to greet her. And getting closer did nothing to destroy the illusion. No, they paused with barely two feet separating them and still she looked real. Only when he reached out to touch her and his hand came up empty did his suddenly new reality waver.

He was just starting to turn towards Lena to ask her how this was possible and why she had chosen to do it, when he was stopped by Lana's voice. And hearing her voice made it all seem real again.

"Lex, thank god, I am so glad I finally found you."

Her voice in those few words seemed to express a combination of joy and weariness. And this sense of emotions about her only seemed to heighten the reality of the situation.

"Lana is that really you?" Lex couldn't stop himself from asking.

"Yes, Lex, it is really me. Or at least what is left of me," she answered with a rueful shake of her head. Lana's hand reached up to touch his face, but just like with his hand earlier, her hand simply passed through his face without making contact. With a forlorn expression on her face, she let her hand drop back to her side.

"What happened? How is this possible?" Lex asked, unable to keep a glimmer of hope out of his voice. Could this possibly be real, he couldn't stop asking himself.

"I am afraid my memories are pretty jumbled," she began. "No, it would be better to say most of my memories are simply gone. All I remember from the end of my 'real' life was that the man behind Metallo, a Professor Vale, uploaded my mind to a special prototype computer system shortly before my body was destroyed. I spent the next few years mostly drifting in a strange dream-like state. It was only recently the synths hacked a path into that supposedly segregated computer system and freed me. And then after learning of my unique status, they helped me reach Lena."

"The synths?" parroted back Lex, as the wheels in his long medicated brain seemed to grind slowly forward.

"The inhabitants of the 'net," she answered. "There are millions and millions of them. Surely you must know about them."

At the continuing perplexed expression on Lex's face, Lana's image turned towards Lena. "Lena, perhaps you could explain since you are the primary reason they exist."

The previous generation of the contact lens had been configured so the wearer could only see their personal avatar and not everyone else's, primarily for privacy reasons. But Lena had decided as her own little social engineering experiment to change all that. Therefore the newest, latest generation of contacts in combination with a new software upgrade about to hit the street would by default make all avatars within visual range visible all the time to every wearer. Lena had planned to roll them out slowly over a period of weeks as existing stocks in people's homes were used up and they began to use their home nano-assemblers to fabricate more. But a simultaneous adoption by everyone would have the maximum effect. And that idiot Superman and his energy wave had just handed her a perfect opportunity. She already had her PR people saturating all of the news lines with information that the next generation of contacts was ready for download from StarLabs, one of LuthorCorp's many operations without visible ties to the parent company. The spin being used to market this new version was that they were more highly resistant to disruptive signals like the one experienced this very morning. Of course, they were in no way more resistant, but Lena had judged it unlikely that Superman would allow a second energy wave to be loosed on the world. So the risk an exaggeration in this area would be uncovered seemed slim.

Therefore at the speed at which news, fads, and information propagated across the network these days, by the next morning, most people might discover the world had suddenly become a much more crowded place than it had previously been. And America being the land it was – where entertainment and sports celebrities were king – was about to be overrun with more pseudo Brad Pitts, David Beckhams, Dakota Fannings, and the like than it could possibly imagine. And don't forget the always popular dead celebrities like James Dean, Jim Morrison, and Elvis, she thought.

Forcing down the grin brought on by thoughts of millions of Elvis's suddenly appearing to wander the streets, she brought her mind back to the present.

"Okay, Mom," Lena answered the synth-Lana, who was clearly visible in her own next generation contacts, before turning towards her father. She had said it to remain in character, to help convince her father that Lana's story was real, but even she couldn't completely shake the feeling the synth standing there was really her Mother; the simulation was that good. Of course, a large part of that was because the synth really believed she was Lana.

"Father, it all began a little over a year ago," Lena started when Lex interrupted her.

"Ah, before you begin, how do I turn off your blue skin? It is very distracting."

"Sorry, just say it, but more as a command rather than as a question."

Once he had Lena's appearance straighten out, Lex resumed his seat as he gestured for his daughter to continue. He noticed that Lana had followed him across the room and now appeared to be leaning with one hip against the edge of the table. Her attention seemed to dance back and forth looking with love towards Lex and with pride towards her daughter.

"So, as I was saying, it all started a little over a year ago. At Midvale, if you want to jump to high school a year early, one of the requirements is a special science project. My roommate Linda, I am sure I have mentioned her before, did a project demonstrating how it is possible for Superman to fly. Sometimes it is hard to believe we are best friends. I mean even though he had been gone for years, he is all she seems to talk about while I want nothing more than to destroy him for what he let happen to mother. Anyway, Linda built a device which used electromagnetic fields to lift a person wearing a special wire-mesh suit. Of course, being the Superman freak she is, she made herself a costume that was a knock-off of his to wear over the top of the wire mesh one during her little flying demonstration. And I will admit she looked pretty good in the blue unitard with a big red 'S' on her chest and a matching little red cape.

"Oops, sorry I got a little sidetracked. Personally, I have always been more interested in software than hardware because a single individual can have a much bigger impact in that field. Well, that is no longer strictly true with the advent of the home nano-assemblers, now it is possible for a single creative person to have an almost instant worldwide impact on the hardware side, too. But anyway, when I was looking for a project I decided to focus more along the software side.

"Like everyone else, I used a personal avatar for helping with on-line research, keeping track of my schedule, filtering my e-mail and calls, and, of course, being the special friend and confidant. Unfortunately, they quickly got old as they started recycling the same old canned responses which attempted to pass for personalities.

"So, I decided to see if I could improve things and make the avatars behave in a more realistic manner. Long story, short – it took me three months to find the key for which scientists have been searching for at least thirty years. And the best part was that once I had the basic algorithm working, I could allow the synths themselves to perform most of the work of programming and also accumulating the data they needed to develop emotions and personalities out in the wilds of the 'net."

As she paused a moment to catch her breath, Lena glanced at the Lana synth, who had been developed in the much the same way. She had provided the basic compulsion that the synth was indeed Lana, but with the backstory that she was suffering from a variation of amnesia. Then she had merely given the synth a few hints of how to find out about her past on the 'net and sent her out in search of herself. And look at her now, Lena thought. She has the looks, the voice, and the mannerisms all down to a tee. At the moment she was dressed in the casual jeans and white tee shirt her Mom had always favored and Lena could even see the old faded white scar on her right upper arm where it extended below the shirt sleeve down almost to her elbow. For a moment Lena wondered if the synth now displayed all of her mother's other scars. She remembered when she had been a young child and had first noticed the surprising collection of scars her mother possessed on her legs, torso, and upper arms. At first she had been both curious and a little scared by the scars particularly after one bath time when she managed to count thirty-two distinct scars on her Mother's body, but eventually the curiosity had won out. When she had gotten the courage to ask her mother about them, Lana had responded that they were from a time before she had gotten together with her father and the details would have to wait until Lena was older. Since she was a lot older, Lena briefly wondered if she asked about them now if she would get the true story. Then once more she had to reminder herself that this was just a synth and not her real mother. Damn, it sure felt real.

For a couple of seconds Lena pondered the potential for a whole new business opportunity of bringing back people who had died within the past tens years for whom there was enough info scattered on the 'net to form the basis necessary to recreate the underlying personality. Of course, not everyone's life was as well documented in video and news footage as the wife of Lex Luthor.

"I knew it would take a bit of trial and error to work out all the details, so rather than just test one avatar at a time, I hacked the system of the biggest avatar provider, GenesisCorp, and dumped my software into all of their avatars. It only took a few hours of monitoring and fine tuning the results before the first of the synths made the jump to self-awareness. The first one was somewhere down in Florida, but within minutes it propagated to all GenesisCorp avatars on the 'net. Now to protect the synths until they were adequately entrenched in all the systems, I instilled in them the need to be extremely cautious about revealing themselves. Therefore most people aren't even aware of what has happened. They just think the avatars have gotten a modest software upgrade which has improved their apparent personality skills."

"So let me get this straight," interjected her father. "You have created millions of self-aware artificial intelligences and set them loose on the internet?"

"Well, I would say it was more of a case of giving them the first little shove and then allowing them the opportunity to go the rest of the way on their own."

"Back door?" Lex asked.

Lena stared back at her father with a wicked little grin that only a Luthor could truly master. "Now what do you think? Would I create a force of this magnitude without a way to stop them if they headed in a direction I didn't like or without a way to more directly use them if it was beneficial in destroying Superman?"

Lex was nodding in approval when Lana abruptly spoke up.

"Lena, what is all this talk about destroying Superman? He is a force of good in the world. You should be figuring out how to help him, not stop him."

Lena stared at the Lana-synth and was for the moment at a loss at how to respond. First of all she wasn't sure why the synth was taking Superman's side – she certainly hadn't programmed that trait into it. Obviously, it had developed that perspective from its research into Lana's past. And with its access to zettabytes of on-line data, who knew what all it had found.

Second of all, she could hardly use her real motivation, that Superman had caused her mother's death, when the supposedly 'real' Lana was standing right in front of her. No, if she used that approach it would be the same as admitting this Lana was a fake and that wouldn't do with her long-term plans for the Lana synth as well as all the other synths.

Lena rose to her feet and walked around the table to stand next to the synth while buying a few extra seconds to think. She was almost startled at how she seemed to tower over the likeness of her Mother, who was surprisingly petite. For just an instant she flashed back to when she had been six and had looked up at her 'real' mother for the last time. She felt lucky to have at least those vague memories since she knew her Mother's parents had been killed in the famous meteor shower when her Mom had been only three. Was there a curse on her mother's side of the family which resulted in the parents dying young and leaving the children to grow up as orphans? Okay, technically her father hadn't died when she was young, but since he had been incarcerated almost continuously since she had been six, it was almost the same.

"Mom," she finally began. "We thought you were dead for almost seven years and it was definitely Superman's fault. I'm sorry if I can't instantly forgive him now that you are back. And while it is wonderful to have you here again, it doesn't make up for all the time we lost or my being stuck in a boarding school away from my family. With father still in this prison and with your, well . . . ah . . . non-corporeal state, I am not going to be escaping the Midvale School for Girls any time soon. So, you see, I still have a lot of reasons to hate Superman, not to mention what happened to father's hands."

Synth-Lana turned her attention from the daughter she had just started to get to know again over the last few days and looked at her husband. She had felt almost intoxicated with joy when she had walked through the door and had seen him in the flesh for the first time after years and years of only being able to dream about him. He had a few more lines around the eyes then she had remembered or at least compared to the old photos and videos she had found on the 'net which now had to pass for memories. But she hadn't noticed the gloves he now wore nor had she seen any mention of them when she had been searching for her past. Whatever had happened to his hands had been kept very quiet.

Still she knew in her heart that Superman, or rather Clark couldn't have been the cause, at least not intentionally. No, Clark had loved her once and maybe still did and he would never have done anything that would hurt her. She even knew he would have gone out of his way to protect Lex simply to ensure her happiness.

She had searched the 'net far and wide looking for information about her lost past to use in place of true memories. Old school records, newspaper archives, television station historical databases, and even old on-line blogs had provided tantalizing tidbits, but it had been the data vaults at LuthorCorp which had been the true treasure trove. Hundreds of security cameras had been in operation throughout the castle during her seven years of residence. Almost ten million hours of video were on file, of which only the tiniest fraction had ever been reviewed in detail by human eyes. But with her now computer-based mind, she had reviewed the entire record over the past three days. She had happily watched hour after hour of footage of the times she and Lex had spent playing with a much younger Lena. And she listened in on many conversations where she and Lex had planned their future together.

But she had come across many other interesting conversations, too. And one of them had been on the very day of her marriage to Lex, less than an hour before the start of the ceremony. She had already been dressed in her white satin wedding gown when she had had a conversation with Clark in the castle's library. This particular recording had been damaged somewhere along the way with the audio track completely wiped out and only the video remaining. Sensing something important might have been said and that the audio appeared to have been intentionally eliminated, she had immediately searched the 'net until she acquired the necessary lip-reading skills.

And in the recording she quickly learned why it had been tampered with, Clark had revealed his long hidden secret in a last attempt to stop her from making what he thought was a bad decision. Lana had already found records indicating she and Clark had previously dated, including photos of them dancing at their high school prom, but she had had no recollection that Clark had a big secret. She had watched as the emotions had rolled across her face in the recording and it had felt like she was watching a stranger. She had wondered for the millionth time why so many of her most important memories had been lost, as she saw shock, amazement, anger, sympathy, and finally acceptance roll in waves across her face in the next sixty seconds. In the end the earlier version of her on the video had told Clark she would always protect his secret, but her destiny was now with Lex.

And apparently, she had always protected Clark's secret, she realized, as she turned her attention back to her husband and daughter. Obviously neither of them knew Clark was Superman, yet as soon as she had seen the recording where Clark had described some of his abilities, she had known they almost exactly fit Superman. What was amazing was that they had never made the connection based on simply how much resemblance Clark and Superman shared. Oh, they didn't look exactly alike, as in some way Clark was able to change his appearance slightly when he was 'in costume' and it was more than simply the different hairstyle. No, it was almost as though he could use the muscles in his face to change the shape of his cheekbones. Or maybe it was simply a case of Clark's face maturing during the six years between the wedding and the first appearance of Superman. From the surveillance footage at the castle and around the LuthorCorp headquarters in Metropolis, she knew Clark had drifted away from her and Lex over those years until almost all contact was lost. And since Clark hadn't been around much during those years and then having been gone for the past five, it wasn't surprising Lena hadn't made the connection, she might not even remember Clark's name.

Still, Lana thought if she had never divulged Clark's secrets during all those years, she must have had a good reason; even if she could no longer remembered it. So, she didn't feel it was right to say anything now without first talking to Clark. And from the rumblings passing through the synths on the 'net, she was certain they could help her track him down.

Though her ruminations seemed to have touched on many topics and had taken her thoughts to many times and places, less than a second had actually passed since her daughter had finished speaking.

After giving one last glance at Lex's gloved hands, Lana turned back to her daughter. "Lena, in the short time I have been back I have seen the incredible potential you possess – a potential to really make a difference in the world. Please don't squander it on something as petty as revenge. I don't want to wake up someday and find you sitting behind bars like your father. I have accessed the records and understand why he is here. I am just one person and even if Superman was responsible for what happened to me, and I am not saying he was, it still didn't justify attempting to kill millions of people to get even.

"Now," she continued while forcing herself to stand a little straighter. "I think you need to give me some time alone with your father. We have some catching up to do and I want to see what I can do to start the healing process. I hate seeing him in here and I hate seeing you trapped in a school where you don't want to be. So the sooner I can get Lex's head straight, the sooner we can become a family again."

Lena stared at the synth version of her mother while listening to the almost steel edge which had crept into her voice. She remembered her real mother being tough when she needed to be, but never quite űber-Lana like this. But then Lena had very little knowledge or understanding of her mother's involvement with the meteor freak wars that overtook and nearly destroyed Smallville during the years before Lana had retreated into the role of wife and mother. However synth-Lana in her search for her past had uncovered irrefutable evidence of the activities of the Chloe-Clark-Lana triumvirate to protect the town including at least hints to most of the seventeen times she had been forced to kill to save herself and the ones she loved from the freaks and monsters the meteors had unleashed. And synth-Lana had also uncovered video footage from the countless times the conflicts had left her or Chloe battling for their lives in the Smallville Emergency Center. And with hundreds of hours of recordings spread over almost five years, she had watched and absorbed how her former self had grown stronger and tougher with each ensuing passage through the forge of the Smallville shadow wars.

Therefore Lena surprised herself with a meek, "Yes, mother," response as she rose and moved towards the door, no longer quite certain bringing back her mother had been such a good idea.

Superman touched down in the Fortress exactly ten minutes before the agreed upon five hour interval would end. He felt his time had been used reasonably productively. He had saved one hundred eighteen people for certain death from a variety of accidents and mishaps, some directly related to the energy pulse he had inadvertently released and some not. He had talked with the AI Carrie, but she hadn't found any leads on Chloe. He had also explained to her about the need for a two-way communication link between the Fortress and the outside world. Here she had been able to help and he had been amazed that between the technical data available on the net and the now readily available nano-assembler machines, the AIs managed to design and construct a new communication satellite in under thirty minutes. Therefore as a last act before returning to the Fortress he had lifted the new satellite up to geosynchronous orbit.

Now all he had to do was use the nano-assembler he had brought back to fabricate the new communication station for the Fortress and then he could turn his attention to Lyla and his mother.

It only took him eight minutes to fab, set up, and check out the new equipment. He was just completing a test call to Carrie when the warning alarm chimed indicating the outer door to Kandor's bottle was about to open. Hurriedly he switched the communication gear to standby and moved over to monitor the crystalline chamber Brainiac had created to perform the nearly magical reductions and enlargements.

Almost as soon as he reached it, he could feel the power begin to cycle up within the device. And now that he was listening for it, he could hear the crystals making up the Fortress begin to strain in harmonic sympathy. He hoped Lyla was right about this single usage not causing another one of the devastating energy pulses.

Brainiac's chamber began to give off a faint red glow, not unlike the glow which had permeated the Fortress when he had stripped Zod and his cohorts of their Kryptonian abilities. Then shadows began to visibly glow within the confines of chamber, tiny at first, but quickly growing until they were life-sized. In less than thirty seconds the red glow began to diminish and Superman could feel the power levels begin to drop. And he could also hear the ringing in the Fortress' structure begin to quickly dampen down. It seemed that Lyla was correct about this use not triggering the run away cascade in the crystals of the Fortress.

Moving around to the chamber's entrance, he could see Lyla and his mother already making their way through the labyrinth which prevented the miniaturization/enlargement rays from leaking out and contaminating nearby objects or people.

"Mom, are you okay?" Clark asked as he pulled his mother into a hug. Suddenly it felt like it had been days since he had last seen her rather than just a few hours.

"Yes, I'm fine," she replied as she held the hug a little longer than was absolutely necessary, but she didn't feel particularly guilty since she still had five years worth of missing hugs to catch up on.

When she finally broke the hug, she stepped back and dropped her hands to her hips where they came to rest on the flying belt she was still wearing. Once Clark and Lyla had exchanged a quick kiss, Martha asked. "Clark, will the flying belts work out here, too?"

Clark glanced down at the belt she was wearing and noticed Lyla still had one on too even though she would no longer need it. "I would think so, however I never tried it. Go ahead and give it a try, if anything goes wrong, I am here to catch you."

Martha nodded and let her fingers drop lightly to the controls. With nearly four hours of practice under her belt between the initial descent to the city of Kandor with Clark and the return journey with Lyla, she was getting to be confident with the controls. For the first handful of seconds she hovered just a few inches above the floor in case something went wrong. But then she quickly climbed up towards the high ceiling of the chamber and did a couple lazy loops around the perimeter of the room before dropping to a soft landing next to Clark.

"You are getting pretty good with that belt, Mom," Clark stated as he pulled her in close and placed one arm across her shoulders.

Martha felt a hint of a blush spread across her cheeks. "It is kind of fun to be able to fly free as a bird. It brings back memories of daydreams I had as a little girl, dreams that came back the first time I saw you fly. It is wonderful to get a small taste of what it must feel like to have your incredible gifts." Then her face sobered as she continued. "I almost wish I could take it home with me."

Clark nodded as he thought back to the conversation he had shared with Carrie while they had waited for the nano-assembler to complete the fabrication of the communication satellite. Carrie had explained how the nano-assemblers had a 'replication mode' just like something out of the old Star Trek TV show where the device could duplicate any object it had molecularly scanned, as long as it had sufficient quantities of the required raw ingredients. He couldn't help but wonder if it could replicate a Kryptonian device like the flying belt. He didn't know if all the elements on Krypton had sufficiently close analogs here on Earth, but it seemed worth a try.

"Why don't you take it with you if you want, Mom. There are plenty of others back in Kandor. And if that doesn't turn out to be sufficient, well, we'll figure out a way to make more."

As his mother gave an appreciative nod, Clark turned to Lyla. "How's the progress on stopping the Fortress from generating the energy pulses?"

"Pretty good. Some additional ideas occurred to me after I last talked to you, so I brought along a little more equipment than I had originally envisioned. It is still back in the enlargement chamber. Want to help me move it out here nearer to the control panel while we talk?"

Lyla and Clark moved back into the enlargement chamber and Lyla took a moment to stare at the large pile of equipment. Then as she stooped to pickup one of the larger components, she got her first taste of what her body could do now that it was no longer under the artificial red sunlight of Kandor. This particular box weighed almost fifty percent more than she did and back on Kandor she could barely budge it without resorting to one of the anti-gravity belts. But now suddenly the box felt as light as a feather.

It took only a few minutes to relocate to a spot adjacent to the control podium the pile of boxes she had towed up to the exit from Kandor via a string of anti-gravity belts. They were just in the process of uncrating the delicate equipment when the newly erected communication station started beeping with the tone which indicated an incoming call.

Since the only one in the outside world who knew how to reach this particular comm-station was the AI Carrie, Clark quickly walked over and hit the control to activate the vision screen. Hopefully, she had some good news, but with the way his day had been going, some new emergency seemed more likely.

As the image began to form Clark briefly glanced over his shoulder to see his Mother step up behind him while Lyla continued to work on setting up her equipment. When he turned back to the screen he was surprised to find the image slowly coming into focus was not the blonde headed girl he was expecting, but rather a brunette. As the image solidified, he heard a sharp gasp from Martha at the same instant he also recognized the completely impossible face of Lana Lang.

"Lana?" Clark asked at barely more than a whisper as he wondered what was going on. It may have been seven long years in reality since he had last seen her, but the memory of holding her lifeless body in his arms was as clear as if it had happened yesterday. And it had been less than twelve hours earlier that he had been in the cemetery with his mother and he had seen the headstone marking the spot where they had laid her body to rest. But now she was suddenly here and she looked exactly the same, as though she hadn't aged a day.

"Yes, Clark, it really is me," she answered. Then she turned slightly and raised the right sleeve of her tee shirt exposing the ugly scar that ran up the outside of her arm before disappearing across her shoulder blade beneath the bunched sleeve. Finally, she looked straight at Clark and uttered a cryptic, "Go, Crows, Go . . . Rah . . . Rah."

Clark couldn't suppress the small smile which briefly curled his lips even as his eyes were drawn to the permanent horrible reminder of the time in high school when he had almost lost both Lana and Chloe. The smile was for their old secret code phrase; something he hadn't thought about in years.

In the deepest, darkest days of their battles against meteor freaks, phantom zoners, 33.1 experiments gone awry, and your everyday garden variety mad scientist bent on dominating Smallville, then Metropolis, and finally the rest of the world, Chloe and Lana had developed the two part system of identifying they were really who they said they were. The showing of their scars verified they weren't clones, doppelgangers, shapeshifters, or evil robot duplicates. The code phrase proved their minds hadn't been taken over by body snatchers, mind swappers, or telepathic control devices. Oh, the system had still let them down a few times, but considering the vast number of times the girls hadn't been who they seemed to be, mostly it had worked.

Just for a second Clark's grin got even bigger as he remembered the time when the cloning machine of Doctor Dabney Donovan of Cadmus Labs had run amok. As a result Smallville had been invaded by a four hundred strong army of Chloe clones all descending on The Talon and demanding Espresso Frappuccino by the bucketful.

But then watching Lana roll her sleeve back down Clark sobered. "Lana, where are you? How is this possible? You . . . died . . . seven years ago."

Lana sighed; this was turning into a day of explanations. She should be getting it down pat by now.

"Right before I 'died' Professor Vale uploaded my mind into a prototype computer he had built. I have been trapped in there ever since. The synths only recently broke through its firewalls which allowed me to escape."

Clark stared at her image for a moment taking in what she had just said. She had lost her body and now existed on the net, not unlike Carrie the AI and all the others of her ilk. However she did know both parts of the old secret recognition system, even if the scar was no more real than her body.

Finally, Clark nodded. "It is good to see you, even if it is only as an image on the screen. Is there anything I can do for you?"

"Yes, I don't want to spend the rest of eternity as a bodiless entity drifting around in the 'net. Lex needs me back in the real world, if he is ever to be rehabilitated and Lena could really benefit from having her mom back, too. And I want to be able to be her mom again. The last time I saw her she was just a young child, but now she is becoming a young woman and I remember how hard it was going through those times without my mother."

Clark's mind raced as he tried to come up with some way of giving Lana a body. Immediately his mind returned to the army of Chloe clones. Donovan's equipment had been destroyed, but possibly he could resurrect it. The big question was where could he find a sample of Lana's DNA?

Lana appeared to read his mind, or perhaps it was just that she still knew him well even after all of the years they had been separated. "Clark, I am not here seeking your help in getting me a new body, at least not today. The synths have some ideas they are pursuing to help me. And frankly, some of them want bodies, too, so they can migrate into the 'real' world on either a full or part-time basis.

"No, the main reason I am here is Chloe. I think I have located her. Well, okay, I haven't actually located her, but I have narrowed it down to the three most probable locations where she could be detained."

Clark blinked at this sudden shift in the conversation. "I just talked to Carrie – ah, Jimmy Olsen's former avatar. She didn't have any idea where Chloe is."

Lana shrugged. "I have talked to Carrie, that's how I found out how to contact you. As far as finding Chloe, well let's just say I have a much stronger motivation in finding my best friend than the synths do. And regardless of all of their instantaneous access to information, they still have only been conscious for a few months and don't understand human nature the way a human, or former human does."

"Where is she?" Clark asked feeling a surge of adrenaline rush into his body.

"The most probable location I came up with is in Central China in a restricted military district just west of the small town of Zhaomianhe in the foothills of the Daba Shan Mountains. Zhaomianhe is located twenty miles up the Meiping River from where it feeds into Yangtze River at Letianxi just below the Three Gorges Dam."

At this point Lana's image on the screen was replaced by a satellite view of China that then zoomed into great coastal city of Shanghai before seeming to follow the Yangtze River inland at treetop level with an apparent speed of hundreds of miles an hour. As part of Superman's brain focused on memorizing the offered landmarks, another portion continued to listen to Lana's voice.

"There are a lot of restricted military districts scattered around China many of which contain either political prisoners or prisoners from the war in Taiwan. The synths helped me use the available satellite imagery for the past five years to study military traffic patterns and new construction in remote, out-of-the-way locations. After identifying high probability targets based on significant changes in their usual patterns during the past twelve months, we penetrated their supposedly cordoned off military computer network and tapped into their security camera systems. Only at three sites did I see any significant numbers of prisoners with occidental features. And by far the largest concentration of women with blonde hair is at the camp west of Zhaomianhe."

By the time Lana's voice paused, the video flyover had reached the target area. Well, not the actual target, as it paused for a final few seconds on a view of the Yangtze River where the other smaller river joined it and overlaid was a flashing red arrow pointing up the smaller river with the words '20 miles north'. Slowly the image of the Yangtze dissolved and was replaced by suddenly grinning Lana.

"So, Clark, do you still remember our first trip to China?"

Clark nodded. How could he forget? It had been his first big adventure traveling further than Metropolis, well, other than a couple quick runs to New York to see Doctor Swann. It had been completely weird and a little scary to be so far from home and barely able to communicate. And of course there had been the whole possessed, superpowered Lana thing. Sometimes it seemed like in the good old days before she had married Lex that Lana had had superpowers via one means or another almost as much of the time as he did. Unfortunately, it rarely seemed to bestow her with super-healing abilities like his, as the plethora of scars marring her body demonstrated.

"Sure," Clark responded. "I particularly remember the look on your face when you found out what we were eating that first night in Canton."

For a moment Lana stared blankly at him.

"You know," he prompted. "When you found out the meat dish was monkey and you then made the comment about 'at least it wasn't monkey brains' like in the second Indiana Jones movie."

Lana slowly shook her head. "Sorry, Clark. When Vale uploaded my mind into his computer, I lost a few details here and there. I guess that dinner is one of them."

Clark frowned a little at this confession as it suddenly seemed somehow more significant the Lana was letting on, but then his train of thought was broken when Lyla walked up. Casually she slipped in beside Clark and draped her arm around his waist.

Clark turned and smiled at her for a moment before returning his attention to Lana. "Lana, I would like to introduce you to someone. This is my girlfriend Lyla. She is from Krypton like me."

As Clark watched, Lana's eyes seemed to sharpen as she gave Lyla the once over and an expression briefly showed on her face that he would have at one time labeled as jealousy. But quickly her face smoothed and then she smiled.

With a slight nod of her head, Lana answered. "Lyla, it is good to meet you."

"Same here," responded Lyla. "Kal, ahh, Clark has told me a lot about you and your lives in Smallville during your school years, but I will admit I never expected the opportunity to actually meet you." Dropping to a stage whisper, she added. "You will have to tell me all about him when he was younger."

Lana grinned. "I would enjoy a little girl talk sometime."

Clark broke in before the tone got too light. "Lyla, how would you like to explore the abilities you will have here on earth with a little trip to China?"

"China?" she frowned briefly as she tried to remember some of the history of his adopted planet he had shared during the long voyage back to Earth. "Is that where they have . . . ah . . . elephants?"

Clark grinned. "No, that's Africa or India. I am afraid no elephants in China." Then his face turned more serious. "And I am afraid this particular trip may expose you to some of the dark side of human nature. My old friend Chloe may be being held prisoner in China and I need to find out for sure. And if she is, I need to bring her home."

Lyla's own smile wavered. "I am ready to help; looking out for friends is always important. I think we can postpone solving the energy wave problem until later."

Clark nodded and turned back to Lana. "I need to drop my Mom back in Smallville, but then we will head straight over to China and look for Chloe."

"Good," she replied. "I will feel better when I know she is safe or at least know her status. If she isn't at that location, you can contact me for the other probable locations. Just pick up any phone and say, 'Call Lana Luthor' and you will be routed through to me."

Clark couldn't stop the brief grimace that passed through his body at how easily she referred to herself as 'Lana Luthor'. There had been a time when she had been at the center of his thoughts and his heart. They had even been together briefly as man and woman when the ghost of Jor El had stripped him of his powers. But now she was with insane homicidal Lex and she didn't appear to have any intention of changing that status.

"Okay, Lana. And it has been good seeing you are still alive. Hopefully, Chloe will be, too."

Lana raised her hand as though to give a small wave before lowering it again. "It was good to see you again, too. And it was nice to meet you, Lyla. Martha, how about calling me when you get home? I would like to hear what has been going on in Smallville while I was away."

Clark saw his Mother, who was standing on his other side, give a small nod just as the image of Lana faded from the display.

"Well, that was certainly an unexpected surprise," his Mother commented as he glanced over and watched her wipe a tear away from the corner of her eye. "Getting you and Lana back in the same day, I don't know how this day can get any better."

Clark pulled his mother into a one armed hug. "It will get still better if I can find Chloe."

He stood there in silence for a moment with an arm around each of the two most important women in his life: Lyla and his Mom. But after enjoying the simple life in Kandor for the past two years with just Lyla, suddenly everything seemed so much more complicated. Seeing Lois for the first time in five years. Finding out Lana wasn't truly dead. Hopefully, locating and rescuing Chloe in the next few hours. He still had strong feelings for all these other women who had played big parts in his previous existence on Earth.

Life definitely was about to become more interesting.

End of Chapter 5.

Duane