by Gary Wilbur
The costumed superhero with the young woman clinging to him seemed, from their own vantage point, to be aimlessly buffeted in every direction. Only from the view of an actual world, and with equipment designed to help guide from one reality to another, could it be seen that there was purpose and direction to their trip. It really was a fine representation of chaos theory, so John and Natasha Irons could tell exactly to what place and time Superman and Ashbury were going.
Being in the Phantom Zone, Superman could not help reflecting on all the time confusion and alternate worlds which had complicated his life since the year 2000. Elements of other realities had so mingled with his own that it was sometimes hard to tell what was real and what wasn't. Had he had one dog as a kid, or two? What was it that really sent Mxyzptlk back to his own dimension? He had hoped he was done with all of that craziness after he returned Kandor to its rightful place, thereby repairing the time leak that had caused most of it. But then there was that affair with the Futuresmiths and Cir-El which had resulted in his being transported out of his own element again, and he hadn't even known about it. Lois had told him afterward that he had been gone, and that someone named Majestic or something had protected Metropolis in his absence. Weird.
Different realities, he thought. Just what I need. It's as if my life were being written by a series of authors who had no idea what they were doing. Yet, ironically, here he was travelling once again to a reality which had actually been created for the purpose of diverting him from his own world.
"Do you want to put on the goggles yet, Ashbury?"
"Not yet, Superman. I want to save it for when we see Scorn."
Superman winced. Lois used to have that kind of love for him. He wondered if he would ever be able to rekindle that spark. If he couldn't...
He quickly tried to put that thought out of his head. It wasn't easy to do, but it helped to notice that the Zone winds were abating, and the mists subsiding. He wasn't sure, but there appeared to be some tall architectural shapes forming..... Yes!
Kandor. The freed city. It really was a beautiful place, so exotic, so otherworldly, so Kryptonian. The man of steel gazed admiringly at the spires as he landed.
"Did I ever thank you for bringing me here, Superman?"
"Only about a hundred times, Ashbury. And once again, you're welcome. Believe me, it's my pleasure."
"You'll tell me the minute you see Scorn, won't you?"
"I promise. I don't know where he is, but I do know where to find Professor Hamilton, and he will let Scorn know we're here."
Superman was not only fulfilling his promise to Ashbury and Scorn. He was also here to consult Emil Hamilton about the creature known as Electro, the energy Superman the professor had helped to save when he created the containment suit. And as he approached Emil's home he felt a wave of sadness and desperation. If he and Emil couldn't come up with an answer to this one, Superman felt he may have lost Lois forever.
"Superman! Up here!" Emil Hamilton stood on a balcony waving to them.
"Hello, Emil." Superman picked up Ashbury and flew up to meet the scientist on the balcony.
"Oh, my... I'd almost forgotten how much fun it is to see you do that. I never see any flying around here. I expect you'd lose that power after about a week under this sun."
"Along with my other powers, I suspect. Emil, this is Ashbury Armstrong. She's here to see her friend, Scorn."
"Glad to meet you, Miss. Yes, Scorn and I are good friends. He should actually be here in a few minutes. Walk with me down to the courtyard. That's where I'm meeting him. Uh, Superman, I hope you don't mind my asking, but are you okay?"
"I guess I'm okay. Why?"
"Well, I don't think I've ever seen you look so sad and tired. I know a trip through the Phantom Zone can be draining, but... "
"I do have a serious problem, Emil. That's why I'm here. People I love on Earth have lost faith that I am who I say I am. They think I'm a fraud, and that someone else is Superman."
"You'd never guess it. The..."
"Ashbury!" It was Scorn running toward their courtyard.
"Scorn!" The goggles were on in an instant, and Ashbury ran to meet her sweetheart, almost disappearing in the embrace of the huge blue creature.
"Now there's a happy couple," Emil noted.
"Hello, Superman," Scorn called. And then his face went dark. "What's the matter?"
"You, too? Do I look that bad?"
"Well," Emil began, "Let's just say that if you're here for a vacation, you look as if it could do you some good."
"There's a great play tonight at the Kandorian," Scorn said. "I was thinking of taking Ashbury to it, but maybe Superman would enjoy it, too."
"I don't know... "
"It's a big hit here in Kandor, but it has caused a lot of controversy in other cities."
"When Kandor was returned here," Emil began to explain, "Complete with its intergalactic population, it upset many Kryptonians who believed that their planet should be home to Kryptonians only. Especially the Raoists."
"And this play is upsetting to them?"
"Yes. It extols the virtue of science as opposed to religion."
"Actually," Scorn added, "It advocates freedom of belief, and the Raoists can't stand that."
"But it also makes religion in general look ridiculous."
"No, it doesn't."
"Sure it does. When Ms. Lerroll gives that speech about... "
"I know the speech you mean, but the play itself doesn't..... "
Superman held up a hand. "Er, thanks, you two. I think I get the idea.."
"Why don't you go see for yourself?" Emil suggested. "It is entertaining, and you certainly seem to be a prime candidate for a little diversion."
Superman looked around at the three eager faces. "Maybe you're right," he said. "I'll go."
Scorn grinned. "And you'll look right at home, Superman. Since this entire planet was created with you in mind, there are a lot of tights and capes and chest emblems."
A large part of the evening's enjoyment came from watching the woman in the lead role. She was wonderful! Beautiful and talented, she moved about the stage with the grace and ease of a true star. Lyla Lerroll. Where had he heard that name before? It was almost as if he already knew her, but of course that was impossible. Still....
The dialogue was witty and fun, but there were moments when Superman could see how a devout person might be offended. Like this part right now.
"So, how is life in the city?" the actor on stage was saying to the lovely Ms. Lerroll.
"I love it. I'm learning so much! I try to steer clear of politics, though. People here have really strong opinions, and just like back home, their religious convictions have a lot to do with their political thought."
"Are there a lot of religions here?"
"Not really. Science is almost a religion to many citizens, but the old school Raoists strongly oppose it. Both camps get violent from time to time."
"It's funny to hear science thought of as a religion."
"But it can be when it has a foil, an opposite. Anything threatened can invoke real passion in its adherents. But I understand why you see science and religion as separate. True science looks at observable facts and seeks the conclusions which explain them. When a theory is no longer supported by the facts, it is replaced with another theory. True religion starts with a conclusion and seeks the facts which support it. When the conclusion is no longer supported by the facts, the believers seek different facts."
"That's an interesting way to look at it."
Apparently it was "interesting" to someone in the audience, too, because at that moment there was a barrage of fire from some kind of Kryptonian weapon, spraying bullets across the stage and orchestra area. A couple actors and musicians were hit, and everyone else on stage dropped to avoid the fire.
Superman was in the air instantly, flying back and forth, blocking as much of the onslaught as he could. He being the only Kryptonian with exposure to a yellow sun, his superpowers were unheard of to the people present that evening. Only Ashbury and Scorn had ever experienced anything like this.
The bullets spattering off his body were a danger to everyone in the audience, so Superman caught as many of them in his hands as he could, and then zeroed in on the weapons themselves, melting them with heat vision. Scorn whisked Ashbury safely outside, and returned to remove as many theatergoers as he could from harm's way. Then everyone heard the crumbling sound.
The extremist Rao worshippers had set up mini-bombs to destroy the support structure of the theater. Their plan was to kill everyone in the theater, including those among themselves who were in there to do the shooting. Martyrs, they thought, would impress all of Krypton with the righteousness of their cause.
As the domed roof caved in, Superman could see Scorn pulling people, six at a time, out a door. He could see Lyla Lerroll on her feet and diving to knock a fellow actor out of the path of a falling beam. And as he flew with superspeed to catch falling debris and keep it from its intended destruction of life, he could not help being impressed. "She's beautiful, she's talented, and she's brave, too."
Due mostly to Superman's efforts, nearly everyone got out alive. But then after it appeared the danger was over, a section of wall that had remained standing toppled over, and Lyla Lerroll was right in its path. Superman flew with blinding speed to lift her out of harm's way before she even realized the danger.
"What?..." she cried out. And then the wall crashed thunderously right where she had been standing. Superman set her on her feet, but her knees went weak with the realization of how close she had been to being killed. He had to catch her again, and as he held her in his arms she looked up and impuilsively kissed him.
"Oh. I'm sorry, Superman. But how can I ever thank you? You saved my life."
Superman looked at her strangely. "How did you know my name?"
"Why... I don't really know. But somehow... I just... do."
Superman felt an inexplicable wave of emotion.
"I hope you don't think I'm being too forward," Lyla said, "But could we go somewhere? Get a bite to eat?"
Superman could not believe what he was hearing himself say. "Yes. I'd like that."
Walking her home, Superman said, "You know, Lyla, it seems to me that I already know you, too."
She just nodded.
"Maybe not in this reality, or even in the reality I come from, but somewhere in the multiverse, we have been together."
"I'm not familiar with the term 'multiverse', but I think I know what you mean. I feel it, too."
"And there's more I think I should tell you. In my home reality, I'm married."
"I think I sensed that, too," Lyla said. "But we wouldn't even be talking now if everything was okay there."
Superman knew she was right. And he was beginning to wonder if any one reality could claim him. Maybe he could choose the world in which to live, the reality that was right for him. He had thought his life with Lois was his destiny, but since that was clearly over.... Maybe the new Superman in her life was the one she was meant to be with. She certainly appeared happy with him. Maybe that reality was Electro's and this one was his. Being with Lyla made him aware of how much he could like that being true.
"I honestly don't know which reality I belong in. Up until meeting you I'd have sworn it was that other one, but this.... "
Lyla squeezed his hand and kissed him. "Good night, Superman. Do whatever you must to sort it out. I'll see you tomorrow, though?"
When Ashbury's visit was over, Superman carried her back through the Phantom Zone to her world, but he didn't stay. He turned and came right back to Krypton and Kandor. He was feeling more and more at home here. Maybe he'd bring Krypto back here as well some day. Since he could enter a reality at any time point from the Phantom Zone, it really increased his options. Why, he and Lyla could live a particularly good day over and over if they chose. Gradually he started to forget why he had come here in the first place. Maybe this is what B-13 had in mind when he created this multiverse, the seduction of an idealized world.
Emil Hamilton broke in on his reverie.
"Although you seem a lot happier than you were when you first came here, Superman, you've left me quite curious. What was going on in Metropolis that brought you here?"
"Oh, nothing that important, really."
"It certainly sounded important at first. You said someone was posing as you, and that people you loved believed him. It sounds like you weren't getting to be Superman any more. Not in the sense that was most important to you."
"I didn't think of it quite that way, but I guess you're right."
"You realize, of course, that if you stay here much longer without going back to your yellow sun solar system on a regular basis, you won't be Superman here, either."
Superman looked up thoughtfully. "So I can't separate myself completely from there unless I want to become just another Kryptonian."
"Maybe that's okay."
Emil's brow furrowed. "If that's really how you feel, it's none of my business. But you're Superman. That's just who you are."
"Look. Do one last favor for me before you alter your life forever. You came to me with a problem. I'd like to take a shot at it. Could you get yourself into an investigative state of mind and try to solve this together? Bring back your crispness, Superman. You seem to be wilting."
"That's an odd thing to say, Emil."
"Okay. When I came here, I really was pretty upset."
"Okay, try to remember how you felt that day, and tell me what was so troubling to you."
"Someone's impersonating me." Superman found himself startled at the pain recalled just by saying it. "And he's good. When I fought him, he won. He almost killed me."
As Emil asked it, somehow it seemed important again. "It's the energy Superman again, but that's impossible. And he completely believes he's me."
Now both men seemed earnest about the task before them.
"It has to be that he has found another body," Emil said. "Otherwise he'd just be free-floating energy. He'd have no form. If it weren't for the containment suit before..."
"That's possible, I guess. But it doesn't explain why he thinks he's me."
"There may be an answer in this. You told me that his gestation was within you."
"I know. You're the only one I've ever told that. And I only told you because we had agreed to share the resolution of that mystery."
"But if this really is the same creature, then it might easily have absorbed your memories while it grew in your cells."
"A child is not born with his parents' memories."
"No, no, of course not. But this 'child' was growing in all your cells, and some of those cells were brain cells. So it could happen. I have no theories, however, as to why it would be able to defeat you."
"It's ironic that it would even want to, considering that it has actually saved my life since returning to the earth."
"What? When was this?"
"It was months ago, when I was fighting Ignition. We were nearly at the heart of the planet when.... Oh!" Superman's face registered the shock of sudden clarity. "That's it! Emil, thanks. I'll fill you in later, you've been a great help. I know exactly what I need to do, but I've got to leave now."
"Superman.... " Emil started, but the man of steel was gone.
I'll need to make some armor, he thought as he flew to the spot where he could again access the Phantom Zone. Suddenly Superman's life was back in focus. None of this was real. Oh, it existed, but it was not his reality, not his life. If it were, maybe he and Lyla would be meant for each other, but it wasn't. He knew what was real. Earth. Metropolis. Ma and Pa.
It had been a long day. Lois had been busy doing what an ace investigative reporter should do, and she had done it creditably. But all she could think about now, as she drove home, was how nice it was not to have been attacked or confronted by that impostor Superman. Maybe he really was gone for good, and she and her husband could enjoy being married. It had been a long time. As she got out of her car, she saw him in the sky over Metropolis, and smiled up at him.
He saw her. His face went grim at seeing her smile. And as he zapped himself into their apartment, he knew this would be the end of her hypocrisy. He turned to her as she stepped in the apartment door.
"Hi, Smallville," she said brightly.
He said nothing as she dropped her jacket over the back of the couch and stood by the bedroom door.
"Clark, do you realize we haven't had any private time since you became Electro?"
"Yes." He looked at her coldly.
"So, Superman, Electro, Clark, whoever you are, come over here. I've missed you."
Her tone was light, but it nonetheless fell heavily on Electro. He stepped forward into her embrace, and slowly pushed her back onto the bed. It seemed to Lois a tender move as his hands touched her neck. Then she felt the confusion and fear as his fingers slowly closed around her throat.
"How could you have done it, Lois? How could you have been unfaithful to me? And with Lex Luthor!"
Lois couldn't speak, couldn't breathe, and she couldn't imagine what he was talking about. She desperately tried to pull it all together to save herself, then realized there was no way she could. And in the panic of her helplessness she heard the window shatter.
Electro was violently yanked off her, and as she choked and gasped for air she caught the first glimpse of the figure who had smashed through her window. She couldn't believe her eyes. It appeared to be Zod engaged in battle with Electro, Zod who had saved her from her own husband. She watched in fascination as the battle between the lead-clad Kryptonian and the instantly-transformed energy being carried them back out the window.
"You... leave... Lois... alone!"
Each word was punctuated by a crushing and lightning-fast blow to Electro, who seemed completely taken by surprise. He recovered enough, however, to shoot energy bolts at his attacker. It was an incredible confrontation, and it ranged over a wide area of the Metropolis sky.
"I figured it out, Electro. I know how you beat me last time. It was the kryptonite radiation you absorbed at the heart of the earth. The radiation you absorbed to save me from Ignition."
Electro was losing energy with every punch he received. Metropolis citizens could see sparks and fire flying off his body with every blow. But he was giving as good as he got, firing blue energy at the man in lead.
"She was with Luthor!" he shouted as he fought. "I saw the videotape. They were... I don't even want to say it..."
The energy bolts were beginning to melt away the lead armor, and the man who looked like Zod knew he'd have to disintegrate Electro quickly. "My armor will be destroyed in a few more seconds," he thought. "Unless I can disperse that kryptonite-saturated energy right now, I'll be defeated again."
Lois watched the onslaught, the blitzkrieg attack of the armor-clad Superman on the energy Superman. She could see Electro's body or aura or whatever it was diminishing. He didn't seem to take up as much space as he had before, and he appeared to be slowing down. She was relieved to see this, because she now had no doubt about who the real hero was. That was Superman, her Superman up there pounding away at the energy body until all that was left of it was a scrap of metal which fell from the sky.
Superman, with his armor in shreds, caught the metal shard and realized right away what it was. "This is the high-density stuff Cauldron was made from," he said. For the first time he was aware of what had kept the energy together and enabled it to form a body. And he also knew instinctively that without that body the dissipated energy would collect again, naturally and safely, deep in the heart of the earth.
"Superman!" Lois called out to him.
"Lois! Are you all right?" He flew to the window and stepped in.
"Oh, Clark, he was trying to kill me. And I thought you were the fake. I'm so sorry. And he said I was unfaithful, and then you looked like Zod..."
"Take it easy, Lois. You're all right, now."
"How did he know so much about you? How was he even separate from you? And what made him think I'd been with Lex Luthor?"
"I think Luthor told him."
"But he was talking about a videotape. How could that possibly be?"
"I think I know. See, Electro was a part of me up until the Millennium Giants, and he had my memories up to that point. But he didn't know anything that had happened with either of us since then."
"That doesn't explain..."
"I think it does. He wouldn't know about the time the Parasite used your persona to rob Lex Luthor."
"Clark, you don't think that the Parasite..."
"Yes, I do. And I think Luthor taped it."
Lois looked stunned, then revolted, and then she said, "Taped it. Now that I can believe."
"So if Luthor gave him the tape..."
"This is a new low even for Luthor. To think that he'd kill me just to hurt you."
Superman shook his head. "He probably never will tell anyone my secret identity, but this just goes to prove how dangerous it is that he knows it."
"We're going to have to live our lives very carefully."
"I can do that. What I can't do is live without..." He didn't seem to want to finish the sentence.
"I've experienced this from both angles, Lois. Remember when you liked Superman but weren't too happy with Clark Kent? That was bad enough, but this time I had to live with you loving Clark, but not Superman. I almost... gave up being Superman."
Lois moved to him and kissed him. "That will never happen again," she said. "But I'm still confused. You say that Electro was once part of you. I thought he was you. I never understood how you were him and then you weren't, and then he existed as a separate entity... None of that makes any sense at all."
Superman took a deep breath and said, "There are still things I haven't told you, and this is a good time and place to start. Remember when we told Professor Hamilton about all those monster-making projects?"
"Now remember right after we got married and everyone was wondering if you'd get pregnant?"
"Yes," she said with growing curiosity.
"Sit down, Lois. I think it's time I told you the rest of the story."