It was bad enough to think she'd marry that two-bit reporter . . . but she married Superman! That damned alien! Lex never took kindly to failing to get what he wanted, and he had fantasized about Lois Lane ever since the videotape of her stripsearch as a teenager. But having actually sampled intimacy with "her" during that Parasite debacle had made him more obsessed than ever to make her his possession. And now, the unkindest cut: She was married to the creature who had taken the spotlight from him and consistently undercut his plans ever since.
Lex remembered the time when Amanda McCoy had told him that Kent and Superman were one and the same. He hadn't believed her; a man with Superman's power would never hide in such a humble guise. But this satellite photo of the Kryptonian craft landing on the Kent farm . . . well, it was irrefutable. Amanda had been correct all along. The computer evidence, the scrapbook, Lana Lang Ross . . . it all fell into place.
Now there was more reason than ever to get rid of Superman. Comforting Lois about the loss of her father was one thing, but if she were to lose her husband . . .
"Superman, it's the B-13 technology that had control of me, I swear . . . "
"I know that. I know you very well, Emil, and I know that you, yourself, could never have done all this. It's something else, something weird."
"What are you referring to?"
"Well, it's a lot of things since the millennial change. Time and reality seem to have gone haywire. Oh, I've experienced time travel and time abnormalities before, but . . . Just see what you think of this. Back when we were investigating the origins of my energy state, I had the strange feeling that if what really happened to me were made known to the world, my life would have followed a whole different reality. Later, I experienced two separate New Year's Eves, one of which I believe was part of that alternate reality. Still later, you helped me travel to a Krypton which is also, I now know, part of that reality. I am aware, because of some of my cosmic experiences, that there are various timelines or dimensions or realities, but we seem to be involved in a lot of connection between them right now. The nuclear holocaust that leveled so much of Kansas? Well, a future version of myself has told me that this event actually happens later. In the grand scheme of things, this happened too early. I've also recently been given a view of the Krypton I really came from, but at a much earlier point in its history. And on top of all this, I have been in touch with one of the Linear Men, kind of guardians of our timeline. She tells me that time as she and her colleagues know it is unraveling. I think all these phenomena that I mentioned are part of that. She also said that I was a key figure in all this, that it revolved around me, and that I would have everything to do with time's survival. Hear me out, please, there's more. When Lois and I visited Krypton we communicated with a magnetic entity called the Xan. They also told me that I was central to all this. I feel that something is wrong and that I need to fix it. But I haven't the faintest clue what it is. So, Emil. I have always counted on you for assistance in matters like this, and you have never let me down. But now, B-13's time traveling and establishment of his future technology in our time has affected you profoundly. This Overmind business that he's using to bring about his purposes has pulled you in. You don't appear to be the man you were before all this. So, I'm asking you, friend to friend: Can I still count on you to help solve this problem? I need your help. Are you still you?"
"Superman, it was the arm. The best thing you could ever have done for me was to sever it. I'm devastated at what I'd become with it. Yes, I give you my word, you can count on me."
"You know Steel will have a much harder time trusting you, and if he says no to our collaborating, it's all off."
"It's not off, Superman." Steel's deep voice boomed behind them. "I may not consider Emil a close friend after all this, but I, too, believe he was controlled. I'll be wary, but we can work together on this."
"Thank you, Dr. Irons. I can't apologize enough for what I did. For you to grant me this measure of forgiveness marks you as one of the greatest men I have ever met. I'll be sure to . . . "
But he was cut off by the sudden appearance of a strangely-dressed young woman.
"Liri Lee!" Superman called out.
"What? Who?" Emil looked startled.
"Gentlemen," the time guardian began, "It is a rare circumstance to reveal ourselves to people, but this is a historic moment. As guardians of our timeline, we knew exactly when to bring this information to you. It has been a mystery to us as well, but Hunter has come up with a theory as to what has been happening, and we believe you three are our best hope. Superman, you have reasoned brilliantly. All this is a manifestation of time becoming more and more unstable. Hunter has determined that timelines are being created at a tremendous rate, and that the only way to stop it is to seal the leak."
"Yes. In the walls of this thing he calls Hypertime, there is a barrier that keeps the dimensions separate except for at certain times when they get close and cross one another. But this barrier developed a pinhole leak a long time ago, with the creation of a dimensional bubble."
"What's a dimensional bubble?" Superman asked.
"That's the best term we know to describe it," Liri Lee went on. "The realities normally remain separated from one another. They can't exist one within the other. However if the barrier material creates a bubble shielding one reality, then it can exist within another, within the bubble. If the bubble bursts, the reality within it cannot exist in its surrounding alien reality. It will be destroyed. The magical gathering of dimensional barrier material to create a bubble also created a leak. If the bubble can be found, it has to be destroyed to repair the leak which threatens dissolution of all the timelines."
Superman and Emil exchanged a look.
"What?" Steel said.
"What? Do you have a clue already?" Liri Lee asked.
"We think we know what the bubble is."
"Then it must be destroyed."
"No." Superman stood resolutely. "That is unacceptable. There has to be another way."
"Yes, sir?" he opened.
Luthor eyed him closely before beginning to speak. "Pete, I'm going to be meeting with some other heads of state for the next week or possibly more. But it's all top secret. The press is being kept out of this loop until we accomplish what we intend. There's a cover story that I am ill, that although it's serious, the best specialists are attending me. Meanwhile, the day-to-day workings of the country are in your hands. Now, there are a few things you have to know . . . "
It was as sudden a knowledge as the attack on Pearl Harbor, or on the World Trade Center, but suddenly the United States was at war with Pokolistan. The tiny country had been a threat to several of its neighbors, but right out of the blue, and for no reason anyone was aware of, they had declared war on the United States.
Pokolistan was ruled by Zod, and Superman knew that the militant group for whom Faora had spoken recently actually included Zod. What was going on? How could the head of a nation hide the fact that he was also a thug in a terrorist operation?
"It's an interesting parallel to myself," Clark told Lois. "In a way, he has a secret life, too. Head of state and terrorist, and both seem dedicated to the same goal: kill me."
"Clark, do you believe that?"
"I certainly do. His chief advisor was Ignition, and he definitely wanted me dead. And Zod has been persuaded that I'm an impostor, and that he, a Kryptonian, should rule this world. I'm sure that's why they have declared war on us. If they believe they are powerful enough to attack our country, then we're in big trouble. And since I'm the one they want, maybe I can finish this quickly."
"Please be careful. He's as powerful as you are."
It didn't take long for one Kryptonian to find another. Zod was not hiding. It was clear that he was eager for this confrontation with Superman.
Newspeople from around the world had gathered for the story of the military buildup, and now they were about to witness the battle of the Kryptonians. There were satellite linkups to every TV in the world.
"This is between us, Zod. We both know it. There is no sense throwing our countries into battle when we can settle this ourselves, right here."
It wasn't like David and Goliath, it was more like two Goliaths, two Kryptonians under a yellow sun, fighting for their lives and nations, each believing completely in the rightness of his cause. But most of the world could see which was the aggressor and which was not. Most put their hopes on Superman.
The battle was on, and neither combatant was holding back. Superspeed, superstrength, flight, heat vision, all their powers were utilized to maximum effect. At one point, Zod grappled a passing jet fighter and diverted its flight to make it a missile against Superman. All that accomplished was the near crash-landing of the plane, which would have killed the crew instantly if Superman had not caught them and guided them safely down at the last moment. No one was hurt, even though the plane itself lost a wing.
Zod has no respect for innocent life at all, Superman thought. I need to end this as quickly as possible. He charged Zod with the intensity with which he had fought Doomsday. His uniform was ripped and Zod's lead armor was also flying off in pieces. Both fighters were wearing down. Signs of fatigue were showing with both of them.
Viewers all over the globe saw this. They all knew that this was the moment that would decide the fate of their world. Both combatants were weakened and tired, but neither was ready to give in. As Superman charged once more, Zod picked up the severed wing of the jet fighter and swung it like a baseball bat, knocking Superman far back toward the horizon just as Ignition made his appearance on it. No one, least of all Superman, was expecting Ignition, but there he was, firing the kinds of blasts that had carried him and Superman underground weeks ago. Superman staggered to his feet as Ignition blasted him again. He was being beaten by two ruthless adversaries, a Kryptonian and a half-Kryptonian shielded with invulnerable armor and armed with atomic weapons. Superman slipped and fell, and didn't get up. The entire world watched in horror as Zod and Ignition prepared to give the final blow.
"There's no doubt about it, Cat." Vice President Ross stood up and turned to the assembled staff. "Gentlemen, it's my belief that our country is in its direst peril. That is a man as powerful as Superman, and he's our enemy. Does anyone here believe that we could beat Superman if he turned against us? Anyone?" He paused and there was no answer. "I didn't think so. However, President Luthor, before his . . . illness, instructed me regarding the last ditch resource. It's untested, but he believes it is the only thing that can defeat any being as powerful as Zod. There is, under this panel, a series of buttons, each designed to launch our country's ultimate weapon against such a metahuman attack, each targeting a different area of the world where our enemy might be. He has just defeated Superman, and he is coming for us. For the survival of the nation, I see no other choice."
Pete's hand hesitated over the button marked Pokolistan, then pressed it. He didn't know in what manner the mechanism would attack Zod or that country, but all the world saw it at once, when every nuclear powered facility in Pokolistan erupted in a mushroom cloud. Every nuclear powered facility, including the strange armor of Ignition. The entire country of Pokolistan was destroyed. Ignition, that poor driven half-Kryptonian, was instantly incinerated from within his own armor. Every plant and animal was gone, every building and superstructure. Every waterway was poisoned with radioactive fallout. Only three individuals survived: Zod, Superman, and one unknown water dweller who escaped only by magically throwing herself into a time travel loop. Unketeli the water witch was the only creature who would know what U.S. Vice President Peter Ross had done before he had done it.
Where was Zod? The object of the technological attack had disappeared while his entire country became the victim in his stead. The man of steel looked around at the devastation and tears came to his eyes.
"There is a megalomaniac out there who is as powerful as I am, who wants to kill me and destroy my country. I have to find him."
"Scorn! What are you doing here?"
"Superman. It's good that you are here. I seek Kandor. I've been hunting for it a long time. I wrote to tell Ashbury that I have to go back. This is not a good world for me, I do not do her any good. And my people need to be free."
"Yes. Yes, they do, Scorn. And that is probably more urgent now than ever before. I know where Kandor is. Let me take you there. I'll tell you what has been happening."
As he flew Scorn back to Metropolis, the man of steel explained all he had learned in the last few months.
"Kandor was abducted from its place on Krypton, an alternate reality Krypton from the timeline we're in now. It was magically shrunk and enclosed in a phase field. But the phase field material is from the natural barrier between realities. The enclosure in which Kandor now exists is called a dimensional bubble. Its creation caused a leak in the barrier, through which time has mixed and melded and become more and more unstable.
"There exist within some Kryptonians and therefore some Kandorians a conscious magnetic energy called the Xan. Knowing that their Krypton would someday blow up unless a superpowered individual saved it, some of them invaded my body the last time we were in Kandor. They guided me to a meteor which held material necessary to create a Phantom Zone link with their Krypton. Once it was created, other Xan used it to get to our reality, probably by a creature we called the Luna Tick. It's a long story, but based on what they learned about my reality, they convinced me that what I knew about my Krypton was a lie. Essentially, they lured me to their reality and their planet to save it. I now think that enabled the birth of my alternate self, who came to Earth later in his own reality with his parents. But they died, and he was raised to hate the American way of life. When he breached realities and appeared in my reality he was manipulated by a half-Kryptonian who hated me, and who renamed him Zod after his own father. They have been after me and the US ever since.But all these reality breaches are expanding the barrier leak. We have to seal it or the timelines will be destroyed. And the phase field of Kandor is the only material that can repair the leak. You know, however, that taking it will destroy Kandor. That's the dilemma we face now.
"Here we are. Kandor now exists in the Phantom Zone, but still within its phase field. The Steelworks has access to the Phantom Zone."
Superman made a light landing and turned to his colleagues there. "Steel, Emil, this is Scorn, a native Kandorian. He's eager to do what he can to save his people."
Emil stepped up and held out his one good hand in greeting. "Scorn, we'll do what we can to bring about that goal."
Steel stepped up. "We've been working on the problem, Superman, and we've come up with some theories that may be on the right track. But there are problems."
Scorn gave them all a look worthy of his name. "Should be easy. Cyborg already found a way to get through the barrier."
"Yes, but that doesn't grow Kandor to its original size," Emil said.
"Cyborg's machines," Scorn countered. "If they still exist, did start to grow us to normal size."
"That still doesn't solve the problem of existing in a foreign reality," Steel added.
Then Superman spoke. "Wait a minute. This may be simpler than we thought. Emil, can you still send us back to their Krypton?"
"Yes, it's an easy matter with the Phantom Zone portal."
"Then I have an idea. We'll need to get someone who can operate the cyborg's machinery within Kandor, but whoever does it will end up on Krypton."
"That may not be a problem, either, Superman, because that individual can come back through the Phantom Zone link."
"Provided we have someone here who can operate it. Emil, you're the only one I know who can run both of these technologies, and you can't be in two places at once."
"Steel can run the Phantom Zone link."
"But I thought it took two people."
Now it was Natasha's voice they heard. "It does. But my time as a prisoner of the B-13 tech gave me the understanding, too. I guess good can come of even the worst situations, huh? Count me in, Supertypes. I want to help."
Everyone was looking with surprise at Nat.
"Good," Scorn said.
"Liri Lee!" She was suddenly back again.
"Yes. Time is running out. When Pokolistan was decimated, there was one more time breach, and it has made matters almost irreparable. If this fails, there is no other time for an alternate plan."
"It won't fail," Superman promised. "Scorn, are you going back?"
"Yes. This Phantom Zone link you speak of: will someone tell Ashbury about it? Maybe I can come back . . . or maybe she can come to my world."
"I'll be sure to get the word to her, Scorn."
Steel stepped up to the circle of Scorn, Emil and Superman. "You'll have to wear these interdimensional communicators until the phase field disappears," he said.
Superman looked around at each of them, and it was silent for a moment.
"Let's go," he said, and Natasha and Steel began the process of sending the three travelers through the Phantom Zone.
"After we get Kandor back as part of its own Krypton again the phase field will no longer be a necessity," Superman explained.
"What do you mean?"
"It will be the same reality on both sides of the phase field."
"Right. What about the citizens who are not native Kryptonians?"
"They are phased into Kandor. That's what kept them prisoners. But phased to Kandor is the same as phased to this Krypton. The Phantom Zone serves the same purpose as the phase field, really, without locking people on one side or the other."
"Right. There it is." They were in sight of the bottle city of Kandor.
"We're ready to phase in, John." Steel's voice came clearly over the communicator. "All systems running perfectly, gentlemen. Hamilton and Scorn away." As Steel ran Emil's equipment, Scorn and Hamilton were pulled into the phase field of Kandor.
"Do you have us, Superman?" came Emil's voice over the communicator from within Kandor. "I have seen this through my viewer before, but nothing compares with the beauty of this place when one is actually here."
Superman picked up the bottle city and began flying toward the link with Krypton as guided by Steel and Natasha.
"On my way," he said. "I'll be setting you down in an unpopulated area of Krypton, and if John is on top of everything, we'll be in the era long before my alternate self got sent to Earth."
"I'm staying on, Superman." It was Emil's voice.
"Emil, what are you saying?"
"Well, after what I just did back in our timeline, I really can't say I feel at home there any more. And the look I've had at B-13 technology puts me in the unique position of being able to help prevent the cataclysm that causes your alternate self to be sent to Earth in the first place."
"Emil, are you sure?"
"I'm absolutely sure, Superman. I'll be able to learn the science of this Krypton, too. It's a dream come true for me."
"Good luck, old friend. If you're sure. Here's the perfect place."
Superman was on Krypton again, and he had found a wide, unpopulated plain.
"Get ready to activate."
"Superman! Hurry!" It was Steel's voice.
"Is it that close a call, John?"
"Not only is the timing close for the dimensional leak, your old friend Zod has found us and is attacking the Steelworks!"
"Quick! Guide me back into the Zone!" Superman called. He turned just in time to see the full size city of Kandor materializing before his eyes as the phase field dissipated.
"It's beautiful!" he exulted as he started to hear the wind. "It's beautiful! On my way, John."
An incredibly powerful wind hit him as he entered the Zone again, a wind from Krypton, making it nearly impossible to guide his own direction. "This is really slowing me down. I know what this is. It's the leak healing itself with the dispersed phase field material. This is terrible. I might not make it . . . Have to . . . "
Back in the Steelworks, Natasha was doing her best to keep Superman guided in the direction of his home reality while Steel was battling a Kryptonian as powerful as his partner. But he was losing, and had just been thrown into a corner and some machinery toppled on him.
"Where is Superman?" Zod demanded of Natasha.
"He's in the Phantom Zone, you freak. Right there." Natasha pointed toward the Phantom Zone portal where Superman had just become visible.
"Natasha! What are you doing?" Steel called, pulling himself free.
"Just a little close timing, Unk. And there's Superman!"
Zod faced him at the portal. "You who claim to be a son of Jor-El! Now is the moment when . . . "
I'm so weak, Superman was thinking. Time repairing itself is an amazingly powerful force. But I can't let . . . "You never give up, do you, Zod?" he said aloud. "Can't you see I'm not the evil man you've been taught to believe I am?"
"Not an evil man?" Zod was right at the edge of the portal. "Your own president was in secret conference with me for over a week telling me how getting you out of the picture would allow his country to progress to the Pokolistanian ideal. Why else would we declare war on you?"
"What?" And Superman stepped out of the portal and past Zod, who turned to watch his obviously weakened prey.
"Now! He's out, Nat," Steel shouted.
Zod began, "You miserable impostor . . . "
But Superman was in no mood for dramatic speeches. He whirled with lightning speed and clobbered Zod with a punch to the face that would have killed a lesser-powered being. The force of the blow knocked the lead-clad Kryptonian into the portal to the Phantom Zone just as they heard Nat shout, "Reversed!"
"Whoooahh!" Zod was pulled unceremoniously into the depths of the Phantom Zone, into the powerful winds of time healing itself.
"We got him."
"Steel, Natasha, that was brilliant. He's in there somewhere, but he's a danger to anyone who chooses to go in."
"But he's between realities, Superman, and without someone at these controls, hopefully he'll never be back."
"There's even more hope than that, John. If Emil is able to do what he plans to do, there will never be a reason for Zod to come to Earth and be brainwashed in the first place. If that's true, his existence in the Phantom Zone will disappear, too." And with any luck, he thought, all the holdovers from the Jokerverse will likewise disappear with the healing of time.
Steel stepped up, smiling and throwing his arm around his friend's shoulders.
"Superman, do you realize that you have managed to keep your promise to someday liberate Kandor?"
"And it was B-13 technological knowledge that allowed us to do it. I wonder what Brainiac - any Brainiac - thinks of that?"
"No matter how you phrase it, Mr. President, it's still blackmail. And I won't be blackmailed. Publish your findings if you want to. I'll live with whatever the public thinks."
"You're bluffing, Superman. I know this is your nightmare come true. But since you don't choose to play ball with me, you'll find that I do keep my promises. I've just hit ‘send'. The whole story has just been e-mailed to Perry White."
"You've never been Perry's friend, Luthor. Don't tell me you're giving him this blockbuster."
"I am indeed. You see, I want this story to have instant and maximum believability. And White has this ridiculous reputation for utter honesty. His stamp of approval on this is what guarantees your ruin forever."
"Okay, Luthor. I guess the die is cast. Do you have any idea how ridiculous you'll look when this story hits the streets? I know of at least three photographs taken of me and Clark Kent together. One of the two of us talking at his apartment. One of him and me and Ms. Lane when I rescued him from the rubble after Doomsday's rampage. And one just taken recently. I don't know how many others the Daily Planet may have on file, but surely enough to discredit your theory. Your satellite photo is interesting, but let's face it: that spaceship had to land somewhere. If it landed near your home, would that make us the same person? I'm really surprised you made such a leap in logic."
"But Amanda McCoy . . . "
"Who is she?"
Luthor blanched. He knew that with the accumulated knowledge of Amanda's findings, the satellite photo was damning, scale-tipping evidence. But the public would not know about her work, there was no existing evidence of it, and Perry White would surely publish the photos Superman had just mentioned. There were enough people who remembered the Joker's recent effect on their president to make the public wonder if he hadn't gone completely over the edge. The name Lex Luthor would be a laughingstock.
Good God, what had he done? He bounded to the phone and dialed Lois Lane's extension at the Daily Planet. "Lois!" he practically shouted. "Is Perry White in his office? There's a story on his email you have to kill. Right now."
"She would never do that, Luthor," Superman said.
Lex turned to him, his face nearly purple with fury. "Yes, she will," he said through clenched teeth. "Yes, she will."
"Most White House insiders believe the vice president was unaware of the devastating effect of what is now being called the doomsday button. Senator Kominos has called the allegations against President Luthor ‘highly credible', and elaborated that if proven true, they would most certainly constitute treason and possibly other ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.' Impeachment proceedings have been recommended by several members of both the House and the Senate."
Lois turned off the TV with a smile.
Clark's smile faded to a look of compassion and concern. "Impeachment does sound good, Lois. But it's not even close to outweighing the Pokolistan disaster. Can you imagine an entire country gone? And it goes without saying that Pete's political career is down the tubes again."
"A lot of close calls, Clark. A lot."
"Way too many. Pokolistan's threat to our country, Zod's threat to me, B-13's threat to time, Luthor's blackmail threat."
"Yeah, well, I wouldn't worry too much about that. I really think that this time Lex Luthor is on his way to jail. Wouldn't it be something to see him in one of those gray prison uniforms?"
"There's a picture. You know, there's still something. I thought I understood Luthor, but . . . "
"I'm amazed that he thought he could get you to even think about deleting an e-mail from Perry's computer."
Lois moved closer to him on the sofa and pulled his arm around her. "You don't think I'd do that to protect you?"
"Yes, my only love, I believe you would. But you didn't know what story it was he wanted you to kill. Not at the time of the call."
She looked up at him. "Smallville . . . My dear farm boy . . . Let me tell you about another close call."