The Empty World

by Ligia Elena

Chapter 1: Excavation

It would be stupid for Dolman to run where he could be so easily found. But for all his scientific acumen, the man was a fool, Lex Luthor thought, and besides, where else could Dolman run to? He needed to go to the power source if he intended to use the device. To what end, Lex did not know, and really did not care. He had financed Dr. Shawn Dolman's research, provided the materials and access to the power required to make it work. That made the resulting invention Lex's. Dolman had no right to use it.

God knew what would happen if Dolman used it first. Lex couldn't risk the consequences. His plan, the crux of it on a piece of paper tucked in his breast pocket, was all that mattered. Reflexively, he touched his chest to feel the paper, a talisman, beneath the cloth. Dolman would not stop this, divert it, or otherwise throw a wrench into the works.

Lex himself would bring Dolman into line, no lackeys or hired thugs to be brought in. The project had been top secret from the start, and it was best to keep it that way, even with the effort at roping in the out-of-control physicist.

And so Lex headed to the deepest level of the old Smallville LuthorCorp Plant, to an underground room just off the abandoned Level Three. A powerful electrical source and Kryptonite -- those were what Dolman's device needed, and what could be found below.

Lex moved as quietly as he could across the metal catwalk against the wall. The vast ground floor was nearly empty but for the remains of a crosswalk, an ancient relic from a time when Clark Kent saved Lex's life. For years it stayed there out of simple neglect of the locked-down, secret Level Three. Now Lex perversely refused to clean it up, leaving it a monument to lost days. If his father had known, he probably would have razed the Smallville plant before letting it house his son's sentimental rubbish heap. Lex had to admit that Lionel probably would have been right. Too bad. The plant was Lex's alone to do with as he pleased, and it pleased him to let Level Three rot, along with Lionel Luthor in the grave and along with Clark Kent's long-dead good will toward his former friend.

In a far corner, Lex descended stairs and found himself opposite steel double doors, which were closed, but not, when he checked, locked. Besides Lex, only Dolman had a key. Dolman was here.

Beyond the doors was another staircase, ill-lit and leading to a door that was ajar, with glowing green light escaping. Lex drew a gun as he softly pushed the door open.

The device -- Lex had not even seen it completed until this moment -- sat open, like a slightly smaller laptop computer, slim, black, unassuming. The plug that Dolman was just fitting into the green-glowing power box was more formidable. The physicist turned toward the device, but was stopped by the sight of his patron holding a gun.

"Trying to contact someone, Dolman?"

Dolman stood frozen a moment, then made an effort to recover. "No, no, of course not ... I had to bring it here to test it --"

"I am to be the one to test it; that was the agreement," Lex said coolly.

"I meant, not test it, but it was stolen from me, Superman took it, but I got it back, and I needed to check to be sure it wasn't tampered with."

"Superman confiscated it and you somehow recovered it," Lex said with disbelieving contempt. "You should have worked up a better lie. And I'm to believe you had to come here to check for tampering? Don't insult my intelligence. Hand it over, and I may not kill you. I'm thinking about settling for destroying your life."

"Wait, wait, wait!" Dolman held out protesting hands. "I've done you an enormous favor, you should at least hear that!"

"A favor."

"Yes!" Dolman said with the air of a salesman working a pitch. "The Chrono-etalon was stolen from me, I mean to say, from you, by Superman. I got it back, I ambushed him, waited for him and took him by surprise as he was leaving the Daily Planet after dark --"

"Hold it. Leaving the Daily Planet? In for an interview, was he?"

"No, he's that reporter, Clark Kent, you know that."

Dolman seemed to almost immediately realize he had let slip something he should not have.

Lex's voice was dangerously calm. "And what makes you so sure I know that?"

"You ... you gave me access to your files --"

"To select files regarding the effects of meteor rocks."

"-- and I, perhaps accidentally, came across your files on Superman. Of course, it's all related. And you know his weakness is Kryptonite, the meteor rocks. I put it to use so that he couldn't derail this project, which I know is so important to you."

"You overcame him with Kryptonite."

"Better than that." Again, maybe Dolman was thinking he could yet get out of this. "Kryptonite bullets. I took him down with just one. I left him there, but I may have killed him. If no one has found him, I'm sure he's dead. I got rid of your greatest enemy. He is gone, out of the picture. No one can stop you now!" Dolman ended with a desperate flourish.

Lex nodded slightly as if considering the worth of such an idea, so tritely announced, leaving Dolman in hopeful suspense a while longer. In reality, Lex was weighing the veracity of the tale, and grimly determined that it must be the truth. Why else would the man expose his own guilt in pilfering private files? His surety that this would win Lex's approval was too genuine; the story too verifiable. No one could have found the body yet -- Lex would have received word. The whole damn city would be in an uproar besides. Or maybe it wouldn't be for mere newspaper reporter Clark Kent. They'd have to make the connection, and Lex believed he was the only person who had managed to put it all together. Or if there were others, they apparently had kept the knowledge as privileged as Lex had.

Lois Lane had to know, Lex remembered. Once he got out of this hole in the ground, he would call her, anonymously, tell her where to find Clark. Maybe she'd get there in time ...

Lex's mind raced, rapidly leading him toward panic. But then he saw Dolman tentatively step up to the table where the device sat. The action snapped Lex back, and as the scientist touched one of the keys, Lex's panic exploded into fury.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Dolman's hands flew up. "Handing it over to you?"

"Step away!"

Dolman quickly complied.

A faint voice, barely audible, seemed to float in the air around them. If it was even real, Lex ignored it. It didn't seem important; it was incomprehensible through the roar of anger in Lex's head. He made an effort to return his voice to his customary quiet menace. "Not even considering the fact that you invaded my personal files, don't you think that if I had wanted Clark Kent dead, he would be?" he asked. "Now do you understand what favor you've done for me?"

And Dolman would pay. Lex had made his decision. As he aimed his gun at the scientist's head, dimly he registered that the greenish glow from the power box now appeared to be coming from the device itself. It seemed to have registered with Dolman, too, who said in a distracted, small voice, "That's not supposed to happen."

Lex's bullet hit the scientist's brain just as the green light overwhelmed them. A shockwave emanated from the device, blasting the two men back.

When the light dissipated, the device was still there, its screen dimly illuminating the dingy, dark power room. But the two men who had been arguing over it were gone. Whether alive or dead, Dolman was in parts unknown. And over a thousand miles away from Level Three and Smallville, in Washington, D.C., Lex was asleep in his own bed, dreaming of a rescue on a bright fall day that had never happened.

Chapter 2: Refugees

First, Lex was drowning. Untroubled, he drifted until he came to rest in the unsounded depths. At peace, waiting dormant until it was time to rise, out of the water and into the air.

He slipped skyward, and the glowing colors of the countryside spread out before him. His home, restored to an untouched perfection it had never possessed. The vista was endless, and so was the future.

Until the alien yanked him back to the hard earth.

Lex was suddenly weighted by gravity and weakened; the world before his eyes had contracted to encompass just this face. He wondered that he felt no fear, no instinct of self-defense. But strangely, the alien's face was not threatening, cruel or vindictive, but filled with concern.

"I missed you," the alien said.

Lex found that a bit difficult to believe, but accepted the sentiment in a spirit of amnesty.

The alien returned Lex's weak smile -- not with the accustomed cruel smirk, but a wide grin like sunshine. Lex had never seen that before.

It occurred to Lex that he was dreaming when his father showed up. The mood of benevolence dissipated; he looked annoyed with his son. Typical. Even in death his dad couldn't be pleased.

Inexplicably, his father put a comforting arm over the alien's shoulder. "Drive slower," he told Lex.

"Drive?" Lex wondered aloud, but his father did not elaborate. Drowning and flying, Lex remembered, but not driving. So he turned to the alien, who looked apologetic to be drawing such attention.

"Thanks for saving my life," Lex said.

"I'm sure you would have done the same thing," the alien replied diffidently.

An insistent beeping distracted Lex, drawing his eyes to the river where he had rested. A crane was lifting a mangled Porsche from the water. It must be in reverse, Lex determined. Beep beep beep. The noise grated as the car backed up into the air.

Beep beep beep.


A voice cut into his reverie. No river, no car, his dad and the alien were gone - Lex was rudely returned to a waking state. He roused himself to slap the alarm clock, and the beeping was silenced.

"Thank you!" his wife called out from the bathroom.

Lex lay back on the pillow with a groan. Dawn had not yet begun to break, and being so abruptly pulled out of that dream - he did not feel rested. He dragged himself up to sit on the edge of the bed and tried to shake off the unease. His morning appointment would require his mind to be sharper than he felt right now.

"You were far gone." Lois entered the bedroom. "I could hear that alarm in the shower - I was about ready to come in and kick you awake."

"I was dreaming."

"Huh. Well, you said you needed an early start, so ..." She pulled him up his both hands and kissed him. "Time to face the day."

As Lex got ready, he should have been thinking about the upcoming meeting with the Scientific Commission. Instead, the dream stayed with him, until he finally gave into temptation and told Lois, "Kal-El was in my dream."

"That's not too surprising."

True, Lex thought, he did seem to consume their lives.

"Okay, I'll bite," Lois continued. "What was he doing?"

"I'm not really sure, actually. My dad was there, too - we were in Smallville - and he dispensed some of his usual helpful advice. `Drive slower.' So what do you think, did he show up to weigh in on policy from beyond the grave? Or was it just the story of my life, or our relationship, anyway, putting in a cameo?"

His wife laughed. "It's your subconscious, and don't ask me to fathom that. I'd like to just stay out of it."

"Thanks so much. Maybe Dad needs to be putting in an appearance in Pete's dreams, talk to him about slowing down, not me."

"Pete is still pushing for Kryptonite bombing."

Lex knew she'd probably memorized this familiar litany, but still launched into it: " `We need to prepare for it,' he says. He's not so big on the idea of deterrence, but that's what the things were built for. With the supply of Kryptonite outside the Zone so limited, we can't risk throwing it all away on one bombing run. And the people who live there, innocent people - it's hell enough for them as it is." He had followed her into the bathroom as she began to apply her make-up. "I know, I should be arguing this with Pete, but I've had this debate with him a million times."

"So you want to have it with me for a change of pace? It's tough for Pete. He's lost a lot. More than you or I have."

"He's not alone. Bombing could be ineffectual, but popular. We can't keep up containment forever; I just hope we can find a better way."

"Then here's hoping the Scientific Commission will bring some workable ideas today. You said you wanted to read over the preliminary report this morning before meeting with them, so you'd better get moving, Smallville" - no matter he far he strayed from his hometown, Lois would not give up that nickname for her husband - "while I'm off to deal with my end of it. I'm going to my office to go over my speech before I leave."

"The Zone Refugee Assistance Fund today, right?"

"Right," she said.

At least it was a worthy cause. Lex knew Lois found some of the more superficial duties of a First Lady dull, and he felt a bit of guilt that she had given up her career as a renowned investigative reporter to play second fiddle to him.

Lois pulled him to her for a quick kiss, and said, "Good luck with your meeting. Fill me in later." And then she left.

Refugees. In a way, they all were - himself, Lois, Vice President Pete Ross, and Pete's wife, Lana.

Lex, Pete and Lana had all grown up in Smallville, while Lois came from Metropolis, the heart of what was now called "the Zone." Metropolis and its surrounding area, including Smallville, were under the iron hand of the alien Kal-El. It was a matter of some debate whether or not he was of extraterrestrial origin - Lex believed it - but his superpowers were unquestionable. With those, and with the money and infrastructure of his adoptive father Lionel Luthor's corporation, he had consolidated power in the region, becoming de facto ruler, beyond the reach of the state and federal governments. It had happened so gradually that his control was solidified before most in more traditional positions of power realized the full extent of the crisis. Lex, as a senator from Kansas, and Lois in her articles for the Metropolis Daily Planet were among the early, unheeded voices of warning.

Lois got out, left the Daily Planet and Metropolis to live in Washington full time and freelance for national publications. It took some convincing to get her to make the move, but her safety was imperiled. She could no longer live in Metropolis and expose the truth about Kal-El's regime without fear for her life. In the end, Lex joined forces with Daily Planet editor Perry White to get her to acquiesce.

Lois fled, and Perry paid for it. He was killed, and the Daily Planet was shut down for good.

Not long after, the Zone became a geographical reality, as the region around Metropolis was made inaccessible by Kal-El and his thuggish operation. The borders were fuzzy, but in the core, getting in or out was near impossible. And people died trying - including Pete's parents.

Lois's immediate family had left before she did. Lana Lang-Ross was orphaned in the meteor shower that brought Kal-El to Earth. The aunt who raised her was still in Metropolis, carefully and practically living within the system, by all reports.

For Lex, there was his mother. She was caught in, he was caught out. At first, nothing could induce her to leave the farm that was her late husband's legacy. And then it was too late. It had been seven years. She had not been present for her son's inauguration to the presidency he had won on the strength of his long-time opposition to Kal-El. Now, as Lex began his second term, the tyrant's rule loomed over the nation, threatening to spread beyond Kansas like a cancer.

Word got out of the Zone, somehow. Snatches of news - Lex knew his mother was still alive, keeping as low a profile as she could. He suspected Kal-El withheld his punishment of her for her son's prominent misdeeds as a simple calculation: Best not to leave his most powerful foe, President Alexander Kent, with nothing left to lose.

When Lex arrived for the meeting, the five members of the commission were already assembled. Lex was at least marginally acquainted with them, and despite his own state of mind, he was anxious to dispense with formalities and get down to business.

And so he would have, but things did not quite work out that way; during their brief greetings, several shots were heard from the White House lawn.

The frenzy was instantaneous. Secret Service agents began communicating with each other, as alarmed voices came from staff just outside the conference room's open door. Of all the hue and cry, one thing broke through to Lex's mind: He heard the words "Mrs. Kent."

Lois. The thought had scarcely registered with him when, amid the distraction, one of the scientific team stepped forward - Dr. Shawn Dolman, a physicist. Before the Secret Service or Lex could react, the man lightly touched Lex's arm, and the two men, to all observers, vanished.

From Lex's perspective, the room vanished from view, and an infinitesimal moment later, he found himself, lightheaded and slightly nauseous, standing next to Dolman somewhere dusty and dark, probably underground.

Lex staggered a little, disoriented, and in the dim saw Dolman make a rapid, shaky move: He darted for an object on the ground and came up with a gun pointed at Lex.

"What is going on?" Lex exclaimed. "What did you do to me?"

Dolman shook his head as if trying to clear it. "Just ... just get your hands in the air." He whirled around, peering into the corners. "You're going to help me find it, tell me who ... when ... tell me what you did, and fix it."

"Fix ...?" The question died as Lex uttered it. His eyes had become adjusted to the darkness, and with cracks of gray daylight filtering in from above, he could see they were in a storm cellar. Aside from an incongruous, foot-high pyramid with faintly flickering lights in the middle of the floor, the rest looked familiar. Very familiar.

Somehow they had traveled thousands of miles in the blink of an eye. This was the Zone. This was Smallville.

The storm cellar belonged to the Kent farm. This was home.

To think a few short hours ago, Lex had been worried about a too-real but meaningless dream. Its importance faded now that he was in the heart of enemy territory in the hands of an armed lunatic.

Indeed, the physicist seemed to be distracted, almost frantic. On the occasions that Lex had met him before this day, Dolman had been levelheaded and collected, if a bit too smug and ingratiating to Lex's liking. As a physicist, he was well-respected, even renowned; certainly no word of his mental instability had reached Lex. Yet now the man was falling to pieces.

Dolman was, at that moment, apparently preoccupied with attempting to both ransack the cellar and keep the gun on his captive. Lex decided to give talking him down a try.

"What is it you think I can help you with?"

Dolman paused in his search and waggled the gun in Lex's direction. "You ... you must have done something to cause the change. My plan, it wouldn't have done all ... this." He gestured wildly to the ceiling of the cellar. "It would have made me ... it would have added to human knowledge, but you -- no surprise -- you fucked it up." He stopped, annoyed, and looked as though he expected Lex's apology.

"You realize I have no idea what you're talking about. You're going to have to spell it out for me, if you even can, because we've met only twice before today, and nothing about this - "

"I know!" Dolman put the palm of his free hand to his forehead and shook his head in frustration, or perhaps pain. "No, we have. I can't remember, it's all jumbled up. I was working for you, then I was working for him, and it's ... I didn't think it was possible, but it's so much worse. So much worse."

"For him? Who?" Lex thought he already knew the answer, and when Dolman simply rolled his eyes he was sure. "You've kidnapped me for Kal-El."

"What? No! Or, maybe, this is his equipment, the transporter, even though I invented it, he thinks it's his because he provided material from that ship of his -"

"Dolman! I don't care. You've been a plant for Kal-El in my administration, and now you've kidnapped me. Why?"

"Not for him. Last night I realized, I knew that you'd done something, so it doesn't matter what he wanted, I had to get you here."

"You seem to be trying an end run around Kal-El - isn't Smallville a bad place to do that? My family's home?"

Dolman looked blankly confused for a moment, then snapped, "Your family home is just where you might have hidden it."

"But I don't know what `it' is." Keep him in the cellar, Lex thought. Keep him away from the house, from Mom. "Tell me about it and we can look together."

"Liar. You have to remember. You were the only other person there. It all came to me last night. I saw that everything has changed. Except there are pieces missing, and I can't remember what I did yesterday, or most of my life, but I do remember ..." His brief lucidity blew over and was gone. "It's your fault. What did you do?"

"Did you stop to think," Lex asked gingerly, "that if you can only remember pieces, that maybe that's all I can remember, too?"

Dolman seemed to consider this, then threw it off. "Come on," he said, waving the gun again for emphasis. "It's not down here. We're going up."

Chapter 3: Persistence

Lois awoke in a bed, alone. It did not take her long to recall how she had got there. On her way out to the helicopter, she had been, to put it bluntly, kidnapped. Out of the sky came Kal-El, headed directly for her. Secret Service agents fired a few pointless shots at him, but ceased once he seized her. Good thing, too -- bullets that bounced off him would kill her effectively.

Even as she knew it was fruitless, she struggled against his grip around her waist as they rose to dizzying heights. They had done this before, when they were very young; then it had been a flight of wonder, breathtaking. Now she felt sickened, and cursed him. "Son of a bitch -- let me go!"

"If I did, you'd fall to your death," he growled. Then he easily jabbed her with a needle and she quickly fell into unconsciousness.

And now she was here, in a comfortable but impersonally bland bedroom. She had no doubt the door was locked, but tried it anyway. It would not open.

Her prison cell had windows, apparently. She pulled back the curtains, looked out on the high-rises of downtown Metropolis.

"Home at last," she muttered.

The skyline had changed since she'd last seen it. She touched a finger to the glass, reaching out to the spot next to the LuthorCorp building where the globe of the Daily Planet once had spun. Now even the building was gone. She was sure the Inquisitor, ever Kal-El's willing mouthpiece, still proudly churned out its tabloid garbage.

So where was she? She could take a guess: One of the floors beneath what, back in the day, had been the Luthor penthouse. The perspective on the city seemed right; she had never stepped foot in the building herself. She had lurked a block away to meet on the sly with Lionel Luthor's son, back when he was, to her, Kal. Later, she had hovered nearby in pursuit of one story or another, but her attempts to get inside had failed.

So had Kal-El kept up residence in this outpost of the family "estate"? It would be one more domain of his late adoptive father that Kal-El had brought under his control. The whole building must now be for his personal use, she thought.

The mystery of her whereabouts more or less solved, it was easy in that empty room to let her mind race to the more pressing questions. Why was she here? Was it a way to get at Lex? Or was it something more personal involving her? That last question begged another: Why now?

The chasm between them was impossibly wide and deep after all these years. There was nothing personal left. She bristled at the thought that he would presume to have some claim on her. Of course, she could just be a pawn in some larger plot. She wasn't sure if that was better or worse.

She realized she was pacing in her cage. She stopped at the window and gave it a good thump with her fist. Behind her, she heard a key turn in the door, and she turned sharply, ready for an ambush.

A guard opened the door, armed, but with her weapon holstered. Absurdly polite, calmly professional, she told Lois, "You have been summoned."

Lois seethed at the word summoned, but the truth was, she suddenly realized she wanted this meeting. She did not even care for her safety. This morning's abduction notwithstanding, it had been 20 years since she had spoken to him. Over the years she had watched him from a distance turn into a monster, a tyrant. A youthful, clandestine romance that had barely lasted eight months before its rather sinister ending -- she should have been able to forget it, were Kal-El not such a pervasive, unseen factor in every aspect of life. It was as if he had grown beyond her memories and overtaken the city, the state, the nation, the entire world. Now, even her husband's dreams, she reminded herself wryly.

Maybe it could end here. One way or another, she would put Kal to rest.

"Fine," she coldly said to the guard. "Where is he?"

The silent guard led Lois to an elevator that took them to the top floor and opened onto a silent, empty hallway. If this place had once belonged to Lionel Luthor, it had been swept clean of all traces of him. Kal had once told her of Lionel's fondness for martial antiques, but no such pieces adorned the walls, which were chillingly bare.

The guard stopped and pushed open a set of heavy wooden doors, stepped aside and gestured for Lois to enter.

The room, Lois was surprised to see, was a dining room. Kal-El rose from the table, which was set for a meal. At a wave of his hand, the guard quite literally bowed out, leaving Lois behind. She was alone with him.

"I understand your meeting this morning was a breakfast affair," he said, "so I assumed you hadn't eaten." He pulled out a chair opposite his.

"You have got to be kidding me. You kidnapped me for lunch?"

The corners of his mouth twitched. "It's only brunch, really."

"Not funny. What the hell do you want?"

"Sit down and ..."

"No. I'm not hungry. Being drugged early this morning made me lose my appetite. So cut the crap and stop trying to act civilized, because I'm not buying it. Why am I here?"

His face darkened. Lois wondered how long it had been since anyone had dared cross him. Probably not since his father had died.

Still, there was no reprisal for her defiance. Instead, there was the slightest hint of sulking in his reply. "Then just sit down if you want to be comfortable." Lois made no move toward the chair, and so he continued, "I need information. That is your fort, right?"

"If you think you can coerce me into telling you anything --"

"I'm not asking you for state secrets," he snapped. "Are you and your husband fools enough to think I don't have spies for that? This is personal. And with all the information about me that you told the world at large, you owe me something in return."

"I owe you nothing."

"You broke every confidence I shared with you."

"You no longer deserved my silence when you started targeting me and people I cared about. I kept your secrets for as long as I could. But eventually there was a greater need to protect the people you were hurting. You threw it away, not me."

"Lies," he said contemptuously. "It was nothing I did. You were going to expose me while you were still pretending to love me. You thought it would make your career, but Lionel threatened you into silence."

She should have expected something like this, but she still laughed in scornful disbelief. "Oh my God, that's what he told you?"

"You only kept that silence until he was gone --"

"Until you murdered him."

He ignored her interruption. "-- then you thought all you had to deal with was me. I guess you thought you could handle me, and that it was career-making time."

"You know, Kal, if that's what you want to believe, go ahead. Even if you know as well as I do how trustworthy Lionel was, you go ahead and buy his story. I kept what secrets I could. My conscience is clear where you're concerned."

"You kept nothing to yourself. You told everyone about Kryptonite --"

"Of course, I told them about Kryptonite. It's our only defense," Lois said, exasperated. "You know what would have made a great story? That damn cave and your deluded ideas about prophecies in the paintings on the walls. It would have been a fascinating look into your psyche, I'm sure, but I kept it to myself. Why? Because it wasn't relevant. It had nothing to do with reality."

She was surprised to perceive that she had wounded him. "Deluded?" he repeated.

"That was my word."

"I suppose so," he said bitterly. "I certainly was deluded about you, thinking you were that woman on the wall, the one I was destined to be with. I believed it."

"And you're still obsessing on that, after all this time? After all that's happened? Forget about the woman, Kal -- if the prophecies about Naman were right, then there is something very wrong with the world. Or there's just something wrong with you. You lost the woman you were `destined' to be with, and I don't see anyone stepping forward to protect the entire world. Remember that part of it?"

He glared. "You don't understand, you can't --"

"You are not Naman. The world's protector could be me, if it comes to that. I'll be the last person standing between you and the rest of humanity before you tear us down."

"How? By cutting ribbons and hosting luncheons as First Lady?"

She merely smirked at his attempt to strike back at her pride. "You have no idea what I'm doing," she said evenly.

"Give me an afternoon. I can get that out of you."

"I thought you said that wasn't the kind of information you wanted from me."

"Not for the moment," he said with annoyance, as if the conversation had got out of his control, and he was aggravated to have Lois herself bring him back to the point. Lois did not respond to his threat, but only continued to stare defiantly, and so he resumed: "All right, then -- when we met, Lionel had hired you to investigate the disappearance of his wife some 25 years before. But he fired you before you had produced any results. Lionel paid you to get that information and now I want my money's worth."

She narrowed her eyes. "Lionel's wife left him nine years before you even arrived on this planet. You didn't care about that then; why now?"

"Lillian Luthor doesn't concern me. She never has. But your husband does, and I think there's a connection. The last day I saw you, you told me you may have found something. I don't think you ever told Lionel, and you wouldn't tell me. But what you can find out, I can find out, too."

"And what do you think you've found?"

"The same records that you uncovered. That some eight months after Lillian Luthor's disappearance, a Jane Doe matching her description, with the same heart condition as well, gave birth to a son in Edge City and lived long enough to name him Alexander. The baby was adopted by the Kents of Smallville, who kept the name his mother had given him. Does that sound familiar? I wonder, would it sound familiar to your husband?"

She should have seen this coming. It was inevitable, given the access he undoubtedly had to all government records in the area. Knowing that, and in her present situation, she saw no good reason to dodge the truth.

"All right. No, Lex does not know. I couldn't confirm it at first, and by the time I was nearly sure of it, I had full understanding of what Lionel was capable of. Lex was better off not knowing, and better off being unknown to Lionel."

"But you left me to him."

"Oh, for God's sake. Did you abduct me just to unload this self-pity? To make me feel bad because you think I threw you over for Lex? Send me back to my room, or to a real prison cell, because I don't want to hear it. You have no grounds. No grounds for it at all."

"That's rich, coming from the person who betrayed me, after I trusted you like I never have anyone else --"

"Look, if you want to know what happened, if you want some version other than Lionel's for why I left, then just ask me."

He paused, as though unwilling to grant that she might have an alternate story worth hearing, before saying, "Fine. Tell me what happened."

It was still galling, to this day, that Lionel Luthor had forced her to cave in. He had the power then; she had none. She had done what she had to do, and felt no remorse for her decision. It didn't make the thought of losing to that man any more palatable.

As for Kal, she felt no need to excuse herself, let alone profess the guilt he seemed to want, but he did deserve the truth, if he wanted to hear it.

So then, she resolved, out with it:

"Lionel found out about us. Of course, he fired me, and ordered me never to see you again. And I told him that he had no right to isolate you as he did, that he couldn't treat you like his private property. Soon you would be old enough to see whomever you wanted, and I would see you. And he very calmly and seriously threatened me, telling me what could happen if I did not stay away from you. He threatened not just me, but my family: first their livelihoods -- and I had an uncle who worked for LuthorCorp, you'll recall -- and if that didn't work, their lives. He gave me the night to think on it. As if I needed it. I knew he meant it and I gave in. I traded my friendship with you for the lives of my family. I had a choice to make and I made the best one I could. I can't change it now."

She searched his face; he looked faraway, lost for a moment in the past. "Do you believe me?" she asked.

"It sounds like Lionel," he admitted with a grimace. "But you had Lex to run to, didn't you? You never said anything to him -- to protect him from Lionel, you say. And conveniently, you didn't have to tell him about us, either."

"Yes, I met Lex in the course of the investigation," Lois said. He was trying her patience again. "But I didn't go running to him like a scared little girl looking for a new boyfriend. I told you the truth: I did not want to leave you. Or replace you -- just then. But I eventually moved on. And as for the rest, my marriage is none of your damn business, Kal. But I'll tell you something, if I thought it was safest to keep what I knew to myself, it turns out I was right: You've figured it out, Lex is a Luthor by blood, and in response, you kidnap me. Why not Lex, too?"

"Actually, I wanted him brought here. That part of the plan seems to have gone awry," Kal said evasively. "But I didn't bring you here to confirm information I already knew. I brought you here because ... I have another mystery for you to solve."

"Why would I help you?"

"Because you may have an interest in it yourself. Because you'll be intrigued." He walked over to a sideboard and brought back to the table a nondescript black case. "This was found in the old Smallville LuthorCorp plant last night. The workers assure me that it wasn't there yesterday, but no one has any idea how it got in there. It was brought to me, and I examined it. And now I think I know why Lillian Luthor left her husband."


He placed his hand lightly on the black case and said, "Because somebody told her to."

Before Lois could inquire further, a cell phone shrilly interrupted. Kal produced his, and answered it. "What have you found out?" he asked, his voice dark and cold.

There was Kal-El, Lois thought. Kal, the petulant, rejected lover, had vanished like a ghost.

"Don't make a move," he ordered. "Stay concealed and keep on eye on the situation. Let me know if anything changes. Don't interfere unless you see Kent in danger."

"Kent?" Lois echoed sharply.

Kal held out a hand to silence her and continued talking into the phone: "I don't care what happens to Dolman. I'll be there soon." He terminated the call without another word and turned to Lois. "Your husband has been found."

"Was he missing?"

"Apparently so. I told you I wanted him brought here this morning. I charged one of my spies in your administration with the job. He has created a prototype transporter, of sorts, and the homing beacon would have brought both of them to LuthorCorp headquarters, if Dolman had been successful. Except the homing beacon was moved. Dolman managed to smuggle it out, and evidently took it to the Kent Farm, of all places. That's where Dolman and your husband are now."

"At the farm? To do what?" Lois demanded.

"How should I know? Dolman's on his own in this."

"Dr. Shawn Dolman?" At Kal's nod, Lois just said, "Damn." The Scientific Commission, infiltrated. Who else? she wondered.

"He'll have a price to pay for his treachery, but your husband is safe. They're under surveillance, and my agents will make sure he won't be harmed. Let's hope they stay put until we get there."

"You're taking me along?"

"I said I need your help to figure this thing out, this ... whatever it was that I found last night. I'll explain everything I can, then we'll go."

"You're asking me to trust you --"

"I'm not. I know that you won't, but you also don't have a lot of options. You can go with me and see your husband, or stay here, imprisoned. That choice should be easy. As for whether you help me" -- he flipped open the black case to reveal a keyboard and began to tap on its strange assortment of keys -- "I think I still know you a little, and you won't be able to turn away from a good puzzle."

For the first time that day, for the first time in 20 years, she saw a familiar small, almost teasing smile play on his lips. Clearly, he thought he had something irresistable, and despite her blaring misgivings, he had already piqued her interest.

"Just listen ..." he said, and tapped a final key.

Chapter 4: Homecoming

Lex had discovered that being held captive by a lunatic could actually be pretty tedious. They were now in the barn; in the search for his mystery object, Dolman had moved through the farm's outer buildings, his progress impeded all along the way by trying to keep Lex in his sights.

Meanwhile, the ranting continued sporadically, enough that Lex felt he might be driven mad himself. The first thing I'm going to do when I get hold of that gun is to tell him to shut the hell up, Lex thought.

At the same time, Lex listened for any new information in Dolman's blather. Coherence was frustratingly sparse. In his mind, the man seemed to be bouncing back and forth between two lives, the real one that Lex knew -- at least it held true with what Lex knew of Dolman's history -- and the imaginary one in which Lex had wreaked havoc with the world. And Dolman seemed to think this upheaval had happened since last night.

The trouble was, while Lex held a much clearer idea of the reality he was living, memories of his dream still wandered in his mind, and were not expelled by the traumatic events of the day, by his fears for Lois, or by his strategizing to overcome Dolman. Not even by the prospect of seeing his mother again after so many years. Kal-El rescuing him from drowning, his father at the riverside -- it felt as though these things had actually happened, and though it was not quite Dolman's level of confusion ...

No, Lex thought, he's affecting my state of mind,* and I*'m letting my imagination run away with me. It's not related. He tried to set it aside.

Dolman paused in his hunt and spoke as if instructing himself: "Figure out how to get back to before the fracture, and reroute the signal from there ..." He nodded, satisfied, and halfheartedly resumed the nearly exhausted search of the dusty barn.

"Look, Dr. Dolman," Lex ventured. "I'll tell you again: If I've taken something from you, I didn't hide it here. I haven't been here for over seven years."

"You didn't hide it," Dolman said, as if Lex were being deliberately obtuse. "You used it. It would have been left where it was when you sent the message."

This was new. "Message?"

It was new to Dolman as well, apparently. He stopped, perplexed. "Yes, of course," he mused. "That's how you did it."

"Tell me, Doctor, what's the likelihood that I'd be using your ... whatever it is ... under, say, an old couch in a barn?" He gestured toward the loft, where Dolman had overturned furniture that Martha had left in place from Lex's own youthful sanctuary.

A dawn of realization gave Dolman the closest look of sanity he had demonstrated all day. "You wouldn't. Even if you stashed the Kryptonite here, you wouldn't have the electrical power necessary. But where would that be?" He stared at Lex.

Dolman's back was to the partially open door. Lex struggled to keep his face impassive as he saw a figure slip inside, raising one of Jonathan's old shotguns.

"You ..." Dolman was saying. "Level Three ... I should have remembered."

The shotgun touched the back of Dolman's neck. "Put the gun down."

Dolman started, and before he could comply, Lex seized the chance and wrenched the pistol from the scientist's hand, where Dolman had held it lax in his reverie moments before. Dolman seemed poised for flight briefly, then sagged in defeat.

"Hi, Mom," Lex said with a rueful smile.

"What ... what is going on?" Martha stammered, her eyes wide with astonishment.

"Hold on," Lex said, and rapidly checked Dolman for weapons. He doubted any could have got by White House security, but better to be safe.

As expected, there were no weapons. But from Dolman's breast pocket Lex pulled a small cylindrical object.

"Quite the gadget man aren't you? What is this?"

Dolman merely looked sullen.

"You have nothing to lose by cooperating -- just tell me!"

"It's how I got you here."

"It works the transporter? Can we use it to get out of here?"

Dolman was regaining his maddening air of irritation at the stupidity of Lex's questions. "It needs the homing beacon," he snapped. "You activate that, you'll just end up in the cellar."

"Useful," Lex said dryly.

"It's a prototype!"

Lex pocketed the object, then turned to his mother. "Sorry. We can't be caught off guard with this one. Still -- God, it's good to see you."

She lowered the shotgun, letting her son keep Dolman in check. "It's wonderful to see you, too, sweetheart." She smiled warmly, even if she still looked slightly dazed.

The certainty that she was alive lifted an enormous burden from Lex's heart. She looked healthy, even if the toll on her face seemed to be more than seven years' worth.

"You're good?" he asked her. "You've been okay?"

"I can't lie and say it hasn't been difficult. But right now" -- she laughed a little -- "it feels like I've never been happier. Except, well, how did you get here? And who ...?" Martha trailed off with a look at Dolman, who was scowling at the ceiling.

"Mom, this is Dr. Shawn Dolman. Member of my scientific advisory committee, spy for Kal-El, and my kidnapper. Dr. Dolman, this is my mother, Martha Kent."

Dolman responded with a dismissive snort.

"Don't take it personally," Lex told Martha. "He's kind of mad at me. Plus, he's more than a little insane."

"He kidnapped you for Kal-El and brought you here? Why?"

"No, he's a free agent in this, as far as I can tell. As for what he wants, that's a bit ... muddled."

"You can explain it to me in the house." She held up a hand as Lex started to protest. "You can bring Dr. Dolman along. We can keep an eye on him just as well there."

So the three crossed to the farmhouse, Lex following behind his mother with Dolman by the arm and at gunpoint. The one-way limitation of the transporter was unwelcome news, Lex thought. Stranded in the heart of the Zone, saddled with an unstable companion -- he considered it was worth weighing the option of just letting Dolman go to fend for himself. But even if Lex had to trek out of Kansas on foot, this time he was determined not to leave his mother behind.

Lex felt a rush of aching familiarity as they entered through the kitchen door. The room, once the center of Kent family life, had not changed so much even since he had left for college, but like rest of the farm, it had acquired a layer of age and deterioration that his mother's housekeeping could not disguise.

Dolman looked about the kitchen curiously. Then he abruptly announced, apparently having taken in the evidence: "This isn't your home. It's ludicrous to think you belong here."

Martha frowned skeptically. Lex shrugged and dragged Dolman to the dining room table, ordering, "Sit down and shut up. I need to figure out how to get out of this mess you made --"

Dolman sat, but interrupted, "There is no way out of this. That's obvious to me now."

"My plan," Lex resumed irritably, "may eventually involve letting you go, so in your own best interest, keep your ravings to yourself."

"Lex." Martha cut off the squabble. "Tell me what's going on."

The gently forceful reproof in her voice cut Lex short, reminiscent as it was of the times past she had played referee between her husband and son. "Sorry, Mom," he said a little sheepishly. And he launched into what he knew of the events of the past hours, and tried to sum up what he had gathered from Dolman.

"It is possible that he was supposed to be abducting me for Kal-El, but he decided to follow his own very confused agenda," Lex said as he finished his tale.

"If he was supposed to be taking you to Kal-El ... his people watch this place, Lex, I know it. I wouldn't be surprised if they already knew you were here. But at least, in case of that," she smiled slightly, "I have something for you."

She handed him a ring. It was his, a gift from Lois when they were first dating, evidence of her twisted sense of humor, he had thought at the time. A ring set with meteor rock: It was supposed to remind him of his hometown and of the meteor crash that marked it -- and marked him, leaving him bald since the age of nine. It wasn't until later he had come to suspect she knew even then that it could be a defensive weapon. Lex had left the ring with his mother; taking it had been Martha's concession when she had insisted on staying on the farm.

"You carry this with you, at all times?" he asked her.

"Well, I took it with me when I thought there were intruders in the barn, but I felt better with the shotgun, too. It's not like people out here see much of Kal-El himself. He has his thugs to take care of things. But if we know he's after you right now, you can take it as a safeguard."

Lex sighed, but did as he was told and put it on his finger. He concluded his explanation of the morning's mysteries: "Dolman doesn't know anything about Lois being part of the original plot, so he says. Whatever was going on before Dolman got me, the gunshots ... I hope she's okay."

"Probably not," Dolman broke in. "You think she's yours. She's not. It's all been turned around, and you don't even see it. It's all to your advantage, and you don't see it. But you thoroughly botched it for the rest of us, and it can't be changed. Without the Chrono-etalon, it can't be changed."

"If you're so convinced that I sent some message that ruined your life --"

"-- and everyone else's --"

"Right. Did you ever think, in that addled brain of yours, that just maybe you can't remember that you were the one who sent the message that somehow destroyed your life? Yes, and everyone else's but mine, because clearly things are going so well for me at the moment. Did you ever think that if you're the creator of this device, then it's your fault?"

Dolman seemed briefly taken aback, then recovered. "Impossible. I would not have caused all this. I had a simple idea: discover Superman before the rest of the world did --"

"What? Discover who?"

"I found out who he was, when he arrived here, how to disable him. I could have been rich and famous, and free of you. Instead, I'm trapped, and I never received that message, and I can't remember my life, and I've gone from being your slave to his!"

"It sounds like you're remembering more now," Martha said.

Lex picked up on her composed, encouraging tone and emulated it as best he could. He sat next to Dolman and said, "Dr. Dolman, if you can just explain what that device of yours does, maybe we can work this out. Try to think ..."

Dolman pressed his fingers to his temples, slipping away again. "We can't ... It's gone."

"I know. But if you had it, what would you have done?"

"Sent a different message, erase what you did ..."

"Lex --" Martha's voice was suddenly dark with alarm. She touched her son's arm, and he noticed the sound of tires on the gravel drive. Lex stood up, and with Martha, moved rapidly to the front room to see what was coming. Heedless of his status as prisoner, Dolman followed, nervously craning for a look. The trio saw through the window a sleek black vehicle come to a halt.

"Oh dear God," Martha whispered as the driver exited.

Kal-El was here.

"Damn it, Dolman, this was a set-up all along?" Lex demanded as he turned to the scientist, who was deathly pale.

But evidently Kal-El's arrival was not something Dolman had expected or wanted. In a blind panic, he bolted for the front door. Both Lex and Martha shouted after him -- Lex discovered that in a crunch, he wasn't willing to use the gun -- but Dolman ignored them and was gone, desperately heading for the dormant fields.

Chapter 5: Amnesty

Lois had one condition, to which Kal conceded: no flying. They would take conventional transportation to the Kent Farm, no matter how much longer it would take.

She was returned to her room before they departed, and presently a nameless employee knocked on the door and handed her a neat pile of clothing: jeans, a sweater and casual shoes to replace her rumpled suit and uncomfortable heels. She considered the likely possibility that she was being monitored, shrugged, and gratefully changed her clothes. The new ones more or less fit.

All the while she puzzled over the recording that Kal had played. It seemed a practical joke, an inexplicable fraud, but Kal believed its veracity. Someone had sent a message to Lillian Luthor long ago, and this machine told the tale. Like the cave paintings that held its stories of the past or the future, Kal believed it. Lois needed convincing.

When they were young, they had pored over the cave paintings and interpretations, trying to unravel the message. They had found the thrill of the chase together, Lois following her budding journalistic instincts, and Kal following Lois -- and his own conviction that these legends held the key to his own origins.

Now here they were again. And even as Lois never forgot that she was a prisoner, that she couldn't trust the word of Kal-El, she was drawn irresistibly to unravel the mystery. It was one worthy of her cousin's Wall of Weird back in the old days.

Perry White would have loved it, she mused, even if she was working with the man who had killed him. Maybe Perry would have loved the irony, too.

"Kid," he would say, "you do what you gotta do to get the story."

Her guard returned, and she was escorted to the front entrance of what indeed was the familiar high-rise of the Luthor penthouse. A large black vehicle pulled up, with Kal himself driving. "Let's go."

The streets of Metropolis seemed remarkably empty, and when they sped off into the eerily quiet countryside, Lois realized that Kal probably had the power to clear the roads before him. She didn't know how often he drove, but he handled the vehicle with ease at a velocity that nearly matched his flying speed. They would make the journey in less than half the time Lois would have imagined.

The day was gray, and rain occasionally spattered the windshield. They spoke very little. Whether Kal found it comfortable silence or awkward, Lois didn't really care. Her mind was occupied with what she had heard.

And what she thought she had heard. At the end -- was that ...? It was impossible, yet Lois couldn't help but smile at the thought of it.

As they reached the outskirts of Smallville, Kal placed a call on his cell phone. "Where are they?" After a pause, he said, "I'll be there in a few minutes. Clear out now. Surveillance is no longer required, and I want everyone gone." He terminated the call and shortly thereafter he turned to drive under the weathered sign that still said "Kent Farm."

Kal parked the vehicle on the gravel drive near the picket fence surrounding the front of the farmhouse and stepped out. As Lois did the same, there was a commotion on the porch. She heard shouting indoors as an unfamiliar middle-aged man flung open the front door, scrambled down the stairs and dashed off to his right, away from where Lois and Kal stood. He clumsily scaled the picket fence and headed for the fields.

Kal vanished in a blur and reappeared across the yard in front of his target. With steely efficiency, he snapped the man's neck.

For a moment, Lois couldn't breathe.

She saw Lex and Martha had run out to the porch. Lex moved in front of his mother, his right hand behind his back, gesturing for her to go inside. However, she did not move, but continued to stare, horror-struck, over Lex's shoulder at Kal and the dead man crumpled at his feet.

Shaking, Lois opened the gate and walked into the yard while Lex glanced from Lois to Kal, who crossed the fence and walked at normal speed toward them.

"Don't worry," Lois said between her teeth, barely containing her fury. "He's not here to hurt us."

Lex nodded slightly and turned to Kal, who said to Lois as he approached, "I told you what would happen to Dolman if I found him." Lois did not reply, and Kal took a step up to the porch. "Lois agreed to come with me. We need --"

Lex's right hand flew out from behind his back and threw a punch to Kal's neck. It should have been a futile and perilous gesture, but instead it sent Kal reeling backwards onto the ground. Lex followed him down, never breaking contact, and Lois saw crackling green veins spread out from where Lex held his fist.

"I have it on good authority that this will kill you," Lex hissed. "How long will it take?"

She remembered the ring. She had never actually seen Kryptonite's effects before.

"Lois," Kal managed to croak.

She moved forward, leaned over him, and pulled the device from the inside pocket of Kal's jacket. Clutching it to her, she wordlessly backed away.

It was Martha who intervened. "Lex," she said, "I do not want to watch you become a killer in front of my eyes."

"It can all end right here. The nightmare will end."

"Find another way to end it."

Lex did not respond. Kal seemed to have lost awareness of anything except excruciating pain. Then Lois saw a strange change come over her husband's face: bewilderment, then almost wondering recognition.

He took his hand away and stood up, stumbling back a little as he did so.

Still on the ground and choking slightly, Kal squinted at Lex's hand. Lex, who was regaining his composure, looked at the ring himself. "It was a gift from my wife," he told Kal.

The look of hurt and betrayal Kal gave her only served to infuriate Lois more. "I can't believe I let you drag me into this --" she said.

"I told you what Dolman was in for," Kal rasped. "And he was escaping." Lex had not moved any farther away; the effect of the ring appeared to be enough to keep Kal weakened.

"And you had to deal with it this very instant. Do you have any sense? Do you expect people to trust you after what you just did? Do you expect me to vouch for you in any way?"

Kal glanced at the device that she held. "What are you going to do?" he asked.

Lois marched up the porch steps. "I am going inside and I'll explain to my family why I am here. Whether you are allowed in is up to the woman of the house."

Martha regarded Kal. "Can you be in the house if the ring is too?" she asked.

"If I keep my distance," he said, and struggled to rise.

Martha nodded. "Then keep your distance." She turned and entered the house.

Lex backed up the porch, opened the door, and with a gesture that prominently placed the ring between Lois and Kal, guided her inside. As the screen door slapped shut, Lois stopped and looked back to see Kal finally stand and unsteadily climb the steps. He waited at the door until Lex had moved out of sight, and for the first time, he entered the home of the Kent family.

Chapter 6: Voices

From the far end of the kitchen, Lex watched Kal-El stop in the entrance hallway, standing uneasily at the door frame that led to the kitchen. Before today, Lex had never seen the alien in person before -- at least, not this close up. Not like this. Not close enough to kill him.

Once, about 15 years ago, Lex had seen him at some charity ball or another, not long after Lionel Luthor died. Lex had attended with Lois, and there Kal-El had been -- even though charity had never been a concern of his, not even for appearances or hidden advantage as Lionel had done. Throughout the evening, Kal-El had hovered on the edges, watching them. Or more likely, watching Lois, who had already begun her investigative reporting on Kal-El for the Daily Planet. Although she had been obviously angry at the situation, she had called Lex paranoid, and determinedly ignored Kal-El, not even approaching him for an impromptu interview.

Lex had never seen Kal-El in such close proximity again, until today. Lex knew this. He reminded himself of it, because other spaces in his mind were telling him something very different. He had let them take over for a moment, and had let Kal-El live to now stand in his mother's house, albeit held safely at bay by the ring.

Lois, meanwhile, without a word left Kal-El at the door and walked over to the counter island, where she placed the device she had taken from him.

It suddenly struck Lex that whatever was going on, it could all be related. "Where did that come from?" he asked.

"The old LuthorCorp plant in Smallville," Lois answered.

Lex looked across the room at Kal-El. "Any chance it was on Level Three?"

Kal-El frowned, then granted, "Yes."

"This must be what Dolman was looking for all morning." Lex gave Kal-El a tight, bitter smile.

"What did he say about it?" Kal asked, but Lois cut him off.

"It would have been great if we could have asked Dolman himself, but we can't. So hold off your interrogation for the moment. We're going to deal with this my way. Because they have to understand something first -- why any of this concerns them."

Martha looked taken aback at Lois's abrupt dismissal of the Terror of Kansas, but Lex stifled an appreciative laugh. The woman was fearless, no doubt about that. The Terror himself folded his arms and was silent.

Lois looked, in fact, more wary facing Lex and Martha than she was facing Kal-El. With the air of one deciding to plunge in and get it over with, she said, "Evidence strongly suggests that Lex's biological parents were Lionel Luthor and his wife Lillian."

Lex looked at Martha, who seemed just as nonplussed as he felt. Indicating Kal-El across the room with a jerk of his head, he asked Lois, "Did he tell you that?"

"No, but with his complete access to all the government records in this area, he confirmed what I've suspected for a long time. Lionel's wife Lillian left him in 1979. Some seven months later, an unknown woman gave birth to you before she died. I believe it was Lillian."

Martha broke in. "How can you know?"

"The evidence is circumstantial, but --"

"It's not," Kal-El said from the doorway. "I've run a DNA test. Your son's matches Lionel's."

Clearly this was news to Lois. "How did you get his DNA?"

Kal-El shrugged. "It wasn't that hard. I've had a blood sample since before he left for Washington -- when he had a doctor here. I was interested in studying people who had been physically affected by the meteor crash."

Lois was visibly struggling to rein in her temper at this revelation. To Lex, having a blood sample stolen years ago by Kal-El was the least shocking thing he had heard in the last two minutes, or all day. He could hardly take in the idea of his Luthor parentage; instead, something else consumed his attention, and he asked his wife, "You said you've suspected this for a long time -- why?"

"When I was Metropolis U. -- when I briefly had that LuthorCorp scholarship -- Lionel Luthor hired me to investigate Lillian's disappearance. My investigation led me to you. I never told him, or anyone, what I found out."

"Or anyone," Lex repeated quietly. "Certainly not me."

"I thought it was too dangerous that anyone know. Too dangerous for you. I was trying to protect you." She paused, then said sincerely, "I'm sorry."

It was hard to forgive her when Lex couldn't quite grasp how angry he was, or whether he understood her reasons. So he just said, "You didn't tell Lionel Luthor -- that's why you lost that scholarship?"

"No, he never even knew how close I got. I crossed him in other ways."

It was a family trait, crossing Luthors. Lois's cousin Chloe had done so and had paid for it with her life -- another one of Pete's grievances. A grievance against my father, Lex thought distractedly, testing the notion.

"What does this have to do with why Kal-El is here?" Martha asked. "Or with Lex being kidnapped this morning?"

"Or you being here," Lex said to Lois. "Why are you here?" With him was merely implied.

"He wanted my help," she said with a sardonic glance at Kal-El, "and since he's not able to ask for it like a normal person, he brought me to Metropolis forcibly. I'm here in Smallville, though, of my own free will."

She flipped open the device on the counter and said, "What no one ever knew was why Lillian left her husband. This thing has a possible answer to that mystery. And the answer seems to have something to do with the Kent family."

She haltingly hit a sequence of keys on the device, as if working her way through something memorized quickly; once she stopped and threw a glance toward Kal-El, who instructed, "The one on the right," and she nodded and continued. Unadorned boxes on the screen flashed lines of text and numbers, until finally she stopped, and a voice emanated from the machine.

Hesistant at first but gradually gathering urgency, the voice was immediately familiar to Lex, but it took a sentence or two for him to place it.

He was listening to the voice of Kal-El.

"This is an important message for Lillian Luthor," it said. "This is ... Clark. You don't know me, but if you can just trust me -- your life may depend on it. You've got to get away from your husband, from Lionel. I have information, proof that he killed his own parents, and he will cause nothing but harm to you and your baby. For your son's sake, and for your own, you have to get him away. And secretly. People who have known about the murders of his parents have died for it. Don't tell him where or why you're going, just get away."

There was a silence; then with a sigh, the voice muttered with chagrin, "What am I doing?" before it was interrupted by a sharp, cranky exclamation in the background.

"Kent! Do you think you can grace us with your presence at the meeting?"

"Uh, sorry, I'll be right there --"


The message ended.

Lois stood with her arms folded and a pensive frown on her face. Even though she had heard the recording before, Lex had noticed her twitch slightly at the shouting man in the background.

Martha spoke first, directing her words to Kal-El: "Clark Kent? I don't know what you meant by recording this, but you did your homework, didn't you? Clark is my family name."

"I had forgotten that," Kal-El said with genuine surprise. "And I didn't record this. At least, I don't remember doing any such thing yesterday, which was when the message was made, according to that device. It was created at 4:04 in the afternoon, and I have nine people who can vouch for my presence at that hour."

"Of course, time stamps can be faked," Lex said.

"So can voices. But I had that one computer-analyzed this morning, and the analysis said it's beyond a doubt mine." He added, "The message was sent more than eight hours after it was recorded, at 12:43 last night. My employees found the device about an hour after that."

Someone had sent a message and changed everything. That was what Dolman had been trying to explain all morning. But Lex hadn't sent it. Neither had Dolman.

"The odd thing is the message's destination," Lois said. "It was sent to a phone number that Kal-El says is still a working one at the Luthor penthouse -- in a room that used to be Lillian's office. But it also was sent to a time. And that time was about a month before Lillian disappeared."

"When she decided to take the caller's advice," Martha said.

"I said to Kal, what do we really know about his race's physiology? Maybe their voices are not unique. If another one of his kind were here before, those time stamps could be wrong, or they could be mistranslating some kind of alien time. I don't know, maybe Kal's biological father sent that message, but why? And why ... make up that name? And how --"

"No," Lex said. "Dolman invented that device. He even had a name for it. Chrono ... something. Time. It communicates through time."

"And who is Clark Kent?" Martha asked.

"Kal-El is Clark Kent. Or he was, before he sent that message yesterday and" -- Lex's smile was ironic, yet almost affectionate, as he borrowed Dolman's words -- "thoroughly botched it for the rest of us."

Chapter 7: Clark

The clarity made Lex feel almost giddy. Everything that he -- and Dolman -- had experienced since that morning, since that message was sent, in fact, fell into place. However dire and tangled the outcome, something astonishing had happened to the world.

His companions, on the other hand, stared at him, looking as though they needed convincing.

"Okay," Lois said slowly. "How has this Clark Kent done ... what has he done?"

"Look," Lex ventured, thinking aloud, "what would have happened if Lillian Luthor had never received that message?"

"Who knows?" Lois said. "She never would have left her husband, I suppose is what you're getting at."

"If she hadn't left, I would have been raised by Lionel Luthor. And if that had happened, obviously Martha and Jonathan Kent would not have adopted me."

"Just because Lionel Luthor already had a son," Martha said, "I don't see why he would give up Kal-El to us."

From his exile across the room, Kal-El stirred at this, and stared at her, frowning. Martha noticed, but directed her explanation to her son and daughter-in-law.

"Lex's mother gave him his name before she died, and we decided to honor that. If it had been my choice, I would have named a son Clark. So when I heard that name ..." She regarded Kal-El and shook her head with uncertain wonder. "It was familiar to me -- something I had once imagined myself."

"You were supposed to find me that day," Kal-El said bleakly, almost to himself. He seemed no longer able to meet Martha's gaze, and looked at Lex instead.

"What day?" Martha asked.

"The day of meteor shower," Lex answered. "Instead, because I was here and not with the Luthors, I was injured, and you and Dad were busy taking care of me. But in some other time, you found Kal-El, and named him Clark Kent."

"He couldn't have planned for all that to happen," Lois said. "And even if he could, why would he want to? If you're right" -- and Lex could hear she wasn't entirely persuaded -- "and Clark Kent and Kal-El are the same person, what would Kal have that Clark couldn't get for himself? Don't they have the same powers? Was it too late to start the world domination plan, and he needed to start from scratch with a Luthor upbringing? Why did he do it?"

"No, I think you're right that he couldn't have intended the changes that happened. The simplest explanation is exactly what the message said: He wanted Lillian to leave her husband before I was born. He didn't think ahead to what fallout there might have been if he succeeded. I think --" Tired of pretending, to himself and to the others, that he did not remember, Lex decided to take the leap. "I think he did it for me."

"To break up your parents' marriage?" Lois asked.

It was Kal-El who spoke. "To save him from Lionel."

"I think so," Lex said.

"There's no way we can know this is true," Martha said.

"No, but it fits with what we know," Lois admitted.

"It fits with what I know." Lex looked at the two women, then at Kal-El, who leaned against the doorframe, for the moment seemingly oblivious to the conversation, lost in thought. Lex continued, "Are any of you ... Do you have memories that you're not sure you had yesterday? That you're not sure belong to your real life?"

Kal-El did not respond or look up, but Lois and Martha both shook their heads.

"Just me then," Lex said with resignation. "And Dolman." Lois had had no experience of the physicist's muddled frame of mind that morning, but Lex saw Martha's look of alarm, and assured her, "Don't worry, I'm not insane. He was recalling two lives and couldn't tell the difference. I can tell, and I don't have nearly as much of that other life in my head as Dolman seemed to. But I do remember. It's taken me until now to accept that, but I do. I dreamt about it last night. Kal-El was there and he saved my life. My father was there and treated Kal-El as if he knew him better than he knew me. I don't think it was just a dream. It happened to me. And Clark Kent was there."

"This morning it was only a dream," Lois said. "I'm sorry, but do any details of this life come to mind when you're awake?"

"I remembered that we were friends," Lex insisted. "That was why I couldn't kill him. I don't know if I would have recognized what I was feeling if I hadn't been with Dolman today; his case was so ... severe. Apparently no one else has been affected by the change. I have no idea why the two of us were."

The whine of the screen door caught their attention, and the three turned to see that Kal-El had walked out.

Lois frowned after him, then said, "So what do we do now?"

Lex abruptly removed the ring and set it on the counter. "I'll go talk to him." It was not the answer to her question, and he knew it, but he had no answer to that yet. The world had been upended; did they now just live with it?

"Wait." Lois halted him. "If you want to keep him here for some reason, I will go talk to him. He's not your friend."

"I know him."

"No, you don't. You're not walking out there to talk to Clark Kent. And you're not safe with him without the ring. I am. He trusts me, and I've got memories of him that I know were not just a dream."

Kal. Lex had noticed the name, but not heeded it until now. She had called him Kal, a sign of familiarity that in no way could have stemmed from this morning's encounter.

"You know him," Lex said, his tone deceptively mild. "Better than you've ever told me."

"I knew him when I worked for Lionel."

He briefly closed his eyes, trying to collect himself, as his mother said, "Lex, I know this other world is real to you, but it's not real to him."

"Or to anyone else, I know. It doesn't matter. The message has to do with us, and maybe I just need to talk to him. And for the moment, I trust him -- enough to go out without the ring, anyway."

Martha offered no more resistance. Though plainly still irked, Lois threw up her hands and stepped aside. Lex headed for the door.

Kal-El had gone no farther than the porch, where he did not turn to look as Lex walked out the door, but continued to ponder the bleak landscape that lay before him.

Lex felt uncomfortably aware of Dolman's corpse a distance off, but said lightly, "I come in peace."

"I know you don't have the ring. I heard you." He looked over just as Lex himself glanced in Dolman's direction. "I'll call my people to have the body taken away."

Small comfort, Lex thought, but he chose to ignore the comment and moved to the opposite end of the porch, leaving behind the disconcerting sight of the dead body. "Do you remember anything?" he asked Kal-El.

"No, just this life. Not you. Not this place."

"But you believe me. Why?"

"Because it's my voice on that device, and I can't imagine any circumstances that would have made me record it in this life." He paused, looking almost forlorn. "I wish I could remember -- being him. Being Clark Kent. Imagine growing up on a farm. It's peaceful here."

"The peace of death, more like it. It wasn't always like this." No matter how neutral Lex's tone, it sounded, rightly, like an accusation. Not the right move to engender trust, but it was difficult to stop himself.

Kal-El did not seem to take offense, but his response was unrepentant. "She's been subject of an embargo, on my orders. No supplies, no farmhands will offer themselves for work. But as I expected, she has some small help from neighbors, friends. The garden, the upkeep of the house -- she's done better than I might have thought."

"You're not making this easy, are you?"

He seemed slightly surprised. "This can't be news to you."

"No, it's not," Lex sighed. "But yes, compared to Metropolis, it's quiet here. I couldn't get out soon enough, as much as my dad wanted me to carry it on. One of the many things we did not see eye to eye on. I just couldn't be what he expected me to be. Now I'm wondering if you would have been."

"Well, no matter what time you're talking about, I'm exactly what I was supposed to be."

"Lionel ...?"

Kal-El snorted dismissively. "Lionel had no particular ambition for me, except to keep me under his control and push me to develop my powers so that he could use them. I was his favorite scientific project and tool. No. I mean my biological father. He sent instructions along when he sent me here: This is a flawed race, and my destiny is to rule over all. And so I did. Trying anyway." He surveyed the farm, despondent, and continued, "Sometimes I think I'm just doing it to fill the hours. As far as I know, I'm going to be here forever. Live forever," He seemed to have forgotten that Lex was there. "But why would I want to live in a world without her in it?"

Lex knew with a sudden certainty about whom Kal-El was speaking. "We're digging up all kinds of pasts today," he said. That brought Kal-El back from his reverie, but Lex did not pursue the subject of his wife. "I have to say," Lex continued, "no matter what your biological father's orders were, in that recording, Clark Kent didn't sound like someone who was ruling the world. Or trying to."

Kal-El finally seemed irritated, though probably more at himself for letting his mask slip than at Lex. "Is that what this is about?" he snapped. "You think you can stop me by appealing to my farm boy alter ego?"

"It's a little late for that. I'm thinking bigger. We need to stop all of this. Figure out a way to put the world back to the way it was."

Kal-El looked scornfully dubious. "How?"

"Dolman was so intent on finding the device, reversing what he thought I'd done. Stopping the original message from ever being sent. There has to be a way to do it. He had to have designed it that way."

"You said he was insane."

"Yeah, well, I'm banking on him having gotten some things right. He only gave up when he realized the device was out of his reach. But however it's done, I can't do it without your help. Dolman said the device's power source was at Level Three -- where you found the thing. And only you can get us back there."

"You know what you're asking -- you're asking to be raised by Lionel Luthor. Is that what you want?"

Lex had not stopped to consider this. "Maybe it would be different for me. He'd see me as a son, not the subject of scientific experiments. And I don't have any powers to exploit."

Kal-El responded with a cheerless smile. "I can see how it would all turn out so well that this Clark Kent, whoever he is or was, would try something so drastic to get you away from Lionel before you were even born."

"And now you're doing it too."

"Doing what?"

"Trying to save me from him."

"Don't assume that I care what happens to you," Kal-El scoffed, unconvincingly. "I just don't know why you think that other life would be so much better. Maybe you're still president of the United States, except you're just like Lionel. What then?"

"I can't possibly have the power to make things as bad as they are now," Lex replied.

Kal-El looked taken aback, even wounded.

"It's the way it's supposed to be," Lex said, more gently. "You are supposed to be the son of Martha and Jonathan Kent, raised on this farm, not as some lab rat for a billionaire."

"You're assuming all that --"

"No, I don't know how, or why, but I know it. Another thing I know: that you are my friend and you saved my life."

"Clark did."

"Yes -- the person you are meant to be. Now it's my turn to save Clark Kent."

"But you need my help to do it."

"Looks like it," Lex granted. "Save yourself."

They were silent a few minutes. Scattered drops of rain came from the overcast sky, and Lex absently put his hand out to catch them.

"He certainly seemed to be at other people's beck and call, didn't he?" Kal-El finally said.

Lex chuckled. "True, there seemed to be a least one person in that life who could make him jump to."

Though he still seemed dispirited, there was something like relief in Kal-El's face. "I'll help you," he said.

Chapter 8: Cultivation

So the entire world was to be rewritten for the sake of Clark Kent. Admittedly, a pretty shitty world at the moment, which could be said to be Clark's fault in more ways than one. Of course, if Lois went along with this, she would not so much view it as saving him as fixing his mess.

The others had their known places in this new - old - world, where their lives would intersect again. Clark Kent and his mother, Martha, and his friend, Lex Luthor. And Clark's little time machine.

For Lois, that world could only be known as a collection of events that, for good or ill, had never happened: She never worked for Lionel, and so never met Kal, at least not in precisely that way - in the lobby of LuthorCorp, Lionel's pointedly brief introduction with the slightest ironic pause before saying his ward's name. Lois had only understood that later: Kal had just begun insisting on the name given him by his biological parents, dropping the "El" back then in a concession to normalcy. Shortly thereafter, Kal had taken to haunting the floor of LuthorCorp where Lois had been given a corner desk in one of the less well-appointed offices. She had noticed him lingering, and eventually made him talk to her.

In the other world, that whole strange period of her life had never happened. There, she could not have met Lex the same way either, of course - brought together through the machinations of Chloe, conspiring with her cousin to get a face-to-face encounter with the suspected end of her investigation into Lillian's fate.

There, some years later, she had never fled from Metropolis, out of Kal-El's reach. And there, so many people would not have had to die.

That made it worth the effort to correct the course.

On the other hand, it struck her that if some things in her life remained unchanged, there was a reasonable chance she knew Clark Kent. Something she could almost consider a known factor: She knew the idiot who had caused all this. Remind me to smack him when I see him again, she told herself.

When she saw him again ... when Lex figured out how to bring him back. Erase Kal and replace him with a stranger.

Lex had explained what he thought had to be done, and that Kal, who was waiting outside, had agreed to help.

"I just need to study this thing and see if Dolman really did devise a way to revert the timeline," Lex said. "Kal-El is going to show me as much as he's figured out. So we've got to take that ring away - I don't know, to the second floor, outside -"

"Hold it." Martha interrupted him. "Lex, you can't just walk in here and tell me that you want to completely alter our entire lives - this family - and not expect me to want a say in it."

Lex glanced at Lois, but she merely raised her eyebrows and said nothing. She had made her own decision already, but Martha had the right to object.

"What you're asking me to do is to give up my son, the son that I love, and take on the responsibility of raising a child who ... all I know of him is that in the here and now, he grew up to be a monster."

"He won't with you and Dad as his parents."

"You can't know whether that's true. You have no evidence."

"I don't need any. I know you. Who else in this world would I trust with this, but you?"

With that, Martha seemed to relent, and stepped up to her son and embraced him, and then held his face in her hands as she asked, "What about you?"

"I'm ..." he began, his voice slightly choked, as if trying to avert tears. "I'm going to lose a lot," he finally said. "But, Mom, you have no idea ... on the outside, how hopeless it looks. That it's just a matter of time - we can't hold him back. One way or another, this ends today. But this is the right way to do it. The best way."

Lois felt uncomfortably aware now, even if the other two weren't, of her guess that Kal would be listening. For her part, Martha looked regretfully doubtful, and Lois wondered if she shared Lois's own misgivings, the suspicion that the "best way" was a pipe dream, and if the threat of Kal-El was to end today, it could only have happened when Lex had him by the throat earlier.

"And you really trust him to help you with this?" Martha asked.

"I have to. It's not possible without him."

Martha picked up the ring. "I'm going to put this in the front room and you can let him in. Make your plans, figure out what you need to do, but just ... let me think about it before you go ahead with it, okay?"

Lex nodded, and Martha left the kitchen. He turned to Lois. "Do you want to object?"

"Lex, if I objected, you would have heard about it by now," she said. "I'll go get him."

She found Kal on the porch, and was startled to see, upon following his line of sight, some uniformed men carrying Dolman's body away, placing it in a newly arrived vehicle.

"What the hell ..."

Kal shrugged. "I called to have them clear it off the farm." He waved dismissively toward the men, who rapidly entered the vehicle and drove off.

Lois turned to see Martha watching the scene from the screen door. "The ring is out of the kitchen," she said, and they followed her back inside.

Lex was already at work on the device. "Did you know there's another message on here?"

Kal blinked, surprised. "No," he said as he moved to stand behind Lex.

"It was created at 9:13 p.m. and was sent at 12:44 a.m. and returned undeliverable a few seconds later. Interesting. It must have been queued up behind Clark's message."

"Let's hear it then."

A few more taps on the keyboard, and Lex said, "There's nothing to hear. It's a text message, directed to a computer ... damn. Dolman sent it to himself. It's just what he said his plan was: instructions on finding the alien boy in Smallville during the meteor shower. All kinds of details about your powers, weaknesses ..."

"And he never received it?" Kal asked.

"No. Apparently Clark's message, since it was sent first, changed Dolman's life enough that the address was no longer valid."

"For what it's worth, Dolman worked for Lionel in the mid-eighties. And Lionel had the influence to help Dolman get places he may not have gotten otherwise."

"There's no hope in detangling that. Maybe with Lillian around, she influenced Lionel's interests in other directions," Lex said. "But one thing's becoming clear: It's not enough for us to stop Clark's message. This device has to be destroyed, because in that other world, presumably Dolman is not dead, and he could try to send his message again, giving us a whole new set of problems."

"You'd better get to work then," Martha said. "And so will I. I realize by this evening I may have a super-powered son running the farm, but for today, I have work to do."

"I'll help," Lois volunteered. "Never been good at computers." Lex gave a chuckle of agreement, and Lois playfully narrowed her eyes. "Say nothing, Smallville."

Then Kal found himself the object of expectant attention.

"I, uh ..." It amused Lois a little to see that it seemed to be Martha who unsettled him, as if Kal thought he ought now to treat her as a mother, but had no idea how. "I'll see if he needs help," he said, motioning to Lex.

"Okay," Martha said. "I had an early lunch before Lex showed up, so if you want anything to eat, there's plenty to choose from in the fridge. Lois?"

"I'm good," she said, grabbing an apple from a bowl on the counter as she followed Martha outside.

They set to work tending the gardens, which Martha had maintained, still selling her organic produce on an individual basis. The Farmers' Market, where the Kents' stand had once been a staple, was now out of the question, she told her daughter-in-law, but she kept a number of loyal customers who made the trip out to the farm.

"So you've survived. We really had no way of knowing how you were doing," Lois said.

"I've survived. With a lot of help from other people. And not just from people I knew - sometimes out-of-towners, strangers, would come here to buy produce - I think they thought patronizing me was a form of resistance. You could tell by the way they kept nervously looking over their shoulders," she said with a laugh.

It felt good, healthy, to be on the ground, digging in the dirt, muddying the clothes Kal's lackey had given her. The overcast sky no longer seemed grim, but gentle, promising rain for the gardens. The vegetables of resistance, Lois thought, cheerily yanking up a weed.

She asked Martha, "Do you wish you had left when Lex asked you to?"

Martha paused in her work, leaning on her rake. "My reasons for staying may not have been good enough, if I had known how bad it would get here. I don't think Jonathan would have wanted me to live through this just to keep the farm. But now it's the people - the friends who have stood by me, made sure that I got by - it's hard to think of leaving them behind."

"Let's hope Lex's plan works then, because if it doesn't, I really don't think he's going to let you stay this time."

Martha just shook her head and resumed working.

"You don't think it's going to work, do you?"

"No, I don't. I'm willing to give my son the benefit of the doubt, but ..." She attacked the ground a little too fiercely, then added, "I also don't know if I share his conviction that I could make this all better, that I could raise a child like that."

"Rest assured that you couldn't have done worse."

"Maybe. But how do you even ... How do you discipline a boy who is stronger and faster than any human could be, including his parents?"

"Believe it or not, it's my impression that once upon a time he was a fairly mild-mannered child. When I met him, he was only then starting to rebel against Lionel."

Lois had encouraged Kal in that, there was no doubt - even pushed him. By the time Lionel had driven her away, the battle had been set to escalate.

She told Martha, "Although, by then, Lionel had discovered the means to control him."

"The Kryptonite?"

"Oh, it wasn't every day, or even every week but, yes."

"But that's torture to him!"

"Lethal, if you go too far."

Martha looked appalled, but Lois would not let herself feel that again - outrage on Kal's behalf. But still she said, "I tried to get him to just leave, back then. But Lionel's grip was far more than physical."

After a silence, Martha said, "You've said before ... he killed Lionel?"

"I could never prove it, but I believe it."

"Even knowing there may have been some provocation, the idea that he killed his father is pretty disturbing when I'm being asked to become his parent."

"Lionel wasn't my father." Lois and Martha started, and turned to see Kal standing at the edge of the garden. "Lois will tell you, that was a fiction for the public. Even then," he added, "I can plead that I was under the influence when I did it."

"Under the influence?" Martha asked, but Kal's comment had answered a question Lois had long wondered.

"Red Kryptonite," she said. Kal affirmed it with a curt nod. "It had intoxicating effects," she explained to Martha, "removing inhibition, a lot of his regard for personal safety, any kind of moral restraints ..."

Martha faced Kal. "Were you on it when you killed Dr. Dolman?"

"No, I haven't used it for years, because it ..." He only then appeared to grasp her meaning. "No," he said abruptly. "That was me." Lois could have almost sworn he looked ashamed. He changed the subject: "Your son seems to have things in hand. There wasn't much I could do. So I came out to see if I could help."

Once again he seemed to have to force himself to meet Martha's steady gaze.

"All right," she said. "Let's see what we can find for you to do."

Chapter 9: Remanence

Lex didn't notice Kal-El leave, so engrossed he was in his examination of the device. Some things were easy to determine, such as the means of communication -- text or a recorded vocal message, clearly, and apparently a live call as well. But if Dolman had some sort of "fail-safe," a way to cancel out a communication, Lex had yet to find it.

After a while, frustration began to draw him out of his trance of concentration. He looked up from the screen to see that he was alone. Needing to clear his mind anyway, he got up to see where Kal-El had gone -- and, relating to that, to assure that his mother and wife were not troubled.

No one could be seen from the kitchen door, but when he came out front, he saw an extraordinary sight: Kal-El repairing a fence, under Martha's watchful eye. They were near the windmill; at the gate stood Lois. He could not see her face, but her posture was relaxed, arms folded as she watched the work, unaware, as Martha and Kal-El also seemed to be, of Lex's presence on the porch.

In his mind's eye, Lex could see the 20-year-old girl who had stood on that spot, waving him off with mock impatience when he paused at the door to look at her one more time before going inside. That had been at the end of the day they'd met -- a day that had been quite the opposite of the confusion and distress that marked this one. That day had been the perfect day.

His mother had pushed him to come home to visit that weekend. Since he had left for college seven years before, his trips to Smallville had been as infrequent as he could get away with without alienating Martha too much. He loved life in the city, and did not miss the stiflingly dull routine of the farm and Smallville. But to get her son home this time, Martha had seized upon the excuse of the wedding of one of the older Ross brothers. Lex had easily guessed his mother's ulterior motive -- quality father-son time.

He gave in and, amazingly, Martha's plan worked: Lex spent a remarkably conflict-free Saturday morning with Jonathan, helping around the farm. Thus it was with a general mood of good will that they headed off to the wedding in late afternoon.

He was not well-acquainted with any of the Ross brothers, let alone the youngest, Pete, then a senior in high school. But Pete's girlfriend, Chloe Sullivan, whom Lex knew even less, drew him into conversation while in line for drinks at the reception, and introduced him to her cousin, Lois Lane. "She was in town visiting anyway," Chloe said. "So I dragged her here to keep me company."

"Oh, thanks a lot," Pete said.

"Please, you know your family's going to be hogging all your time." As if on cue, an aunt arrived to snatch Pete away for photographs. "Ha!" said Chloe, triumphant, earning an amiable "Yeah, yeah" from Pete as he left them. To Lex and Lois, Chloe said, "I mean, what was I supposed to do, hang out with my dad all night?"

"And whose company are you keeping?" Lois asked as Lex carefully picked up three drinks from the bar.

"Actually, the plan was to hang out with my parents all night."

"Well, if you want a break," she told him, "come over and join us."

"I may just do that." His parents had had him for the day and he knew Martha at least wouldn't be able to resist setting him free from their company in a romantic pursuit. But she didn't even need to plead on his behalf; in little time, Jonathan good-naturedly sent Lex on his way to find the girls again.

And so, if it had been Lois's intention -- as Lex wondered now -- to stick close to her subject, Lex had made it easy. He eschewed the company of former classmates closer to his age -- since he had graduated from high school early, he had felt he had long left them behind anyway -- to spend the evening with the younger set. For that night, the four were inseparable, excepting Pete's familial duties. They chattered over dinner and joined in every silly wedding reception group dance. Lois insisted that their song ought to be "Electric Slide" -- "It was the first time we danced together," she'd laugh. It should have been the sappy song that played when he cajoled her into a slow dance as the evening waned, but neither of them could remember later what it was.

"Hey," she had reminded him, "you know I'm dating someone else."

Yes, Chloe had mentioned it, demanding to know when she'd get to meet the guy.

"It's only a dance," Lex told Lois.

He was utterly smitten with this bright, forceful, sardonic girl. They were both going back to Metropolis the next day, and in the parking lot after the reception ended, he tried a different tactic. "Look, even if you are seeing someone, I wouldn't mind getting together -- just as friends."

She considered it, then said, "Okay. It's a deal." She fished a small notebook from her purse, wrote her phone number, then took his.

Chloe drove Lex home -- his parents had left the reception hours earlier. Lois saw him to the gate, looking about the dark landscape curiously. "Wow. You grew up in this place?"

"Straight off the farm."

"I don't see it."

"I'm good at acting the part of the cosmopolitan."

She looked at him appraisingly, and said, "See ya, Smallville." It was the first time she called him that.

He came inside quietly, wondering that he could feel so euphoric when he had been rejected by this girl. In this mood, it almost felt like her mere friendship could be enough -- for the time being.

"I was wondering if you would ever call it a night." Jonathan was still awake, sitting at the dining table, papers spread in front of him. At least he sounded amused, not annoyed as if they were replaying one of Lex's teenage late nights.

Lex thought of his mother's concern over Jonathan's health, and asked, "Shouldn't you be in bed?"

"Couldn't sleep. So I decided to work on some things," he said, pushing the documents into a pile before walking over to meet his son in the kitchen. "So, how was the rest of the reception?" he asked with a playful raise of his eyebrows.

"She has a boyfriend," Lex said cheerfully. "But I still got a promise to meet up in Metropolis some time -- as friends."

Jonathan was pulling two bottles of beer from the refrigerator. He offered one to his son and said, "Let's drink to that, then."

They sat at the kitchen's counter island for an hour before turning in, the conversation light and comfortable.

Lex still sometimes thought that was the happiest day of his life.

When he left the next day, it was the last time he saw his father alive. His and Lois's Metropolis friendship was barely off the ground when he asked her to come to Smallville with him for Jonathan's funeral. She came. With little involvement with the Kent family herself at this stage, she could be strong. He was grateful.

It was good that Lex and Jonathan had had that last amicable day together, Lois told him. Lex knew he should see it that way, but instead felt cheated. That day had shown they could get it right, and he had been robbed of a chance to try it again, to make it work. Lois didn't push it, didn't insist that he look on the bright side or just be grateful for what he had rather than what he had missed. But she also did not allow extended wallowing. Her friendship was good for him that way.

That made it all the more confounding when the mysterious boyfriend exited the picture. "It ended badly," was all she told him. "And I'm swearing off relationships for a while." Something about it had infuriated her, and she would not talk about it, and she would not let it go.

She would go out occasionally, but never more than one or two dates, and never with Lex, who found himself resenting the boyfriend more during this period than when Lois had been dating him. Eventually Lex called her on it, accusing her of hanging on to a relationship with someone she had never even bothered to introduce to her family or friends -- to Lex's knowledge, only Chloe had ever met the boyfriend, and she had been uncharacteristically close-mouthed about it.

"You're one to talk," Lois threw back at Lex when he confronted her. "Mooning after me for two years now."

It was their first fight. She left angry, and the next day she called and asked him on a date.

It had indeed taken two years, but finally they were more than just friends. Lex got off the phone and remembered the day of the wedding. He raised a glass to his father and said, "Let's drink to that."

That had been their story; that was how it had happened. Now, as of today he realized his story had been incomplete. It was missing the knowledge that Lois's presence at the wedding had not been coincidental, but intentional -- Chloe colluding in her cousin's investigation. Most disturbingly, it was missing Kal-El.

Lois turned and smiled at Lex as he crossed the yard to meet her at the gate. "He offered to help, and Martha's taking full advantage," she said. "What about you -- any progress?"

"Only in that I know more of what won't work. I needed a break." After a pause, he said in what he hoped was a neutral tone, "He really hasn't gotten over you, you know."

"Oh God, what did he say to you?" she asked wearily.

"Just that. More or less. It's been a lot to take in today, but I have to admit, it's hard for me to accept that when we first met, you were pretending to be a friend just to help along your investigation, and then ... him."

He could hear his voice; he sounded petulant, and probably deserved the glare that came his way. "The only thing I pretended was that Chloe brought me along that day just to keep her company," Lois said. "But when I met you, I actually liked you. I never pretended to be your friend. I already said I'm sorry for not telling you about my work for Lionel. I thought it was in your best interest. And as for Kal, I can't believe that after fifteen years of marriage, you could doubt me over something that ended long ago. I can't help what he feels. All I can say is that I love you, and hope you believe me."

It would have to do for today.

"I do believe you," he said, and ventured a chastened smile. "I'm sorry -- it's been a strange day."

"Tell me about it, Smallville. The strangest things seem to happen in your hometown."

"You know, in that other life, it's possible that I've never even been to Smallville."

"Then I guess I'll meet up with you in Metropolis." She regarded him and added, deadpan, "Except, if you've never been here, I'll have to remember to look for the guy with hair."

He affected a pained grimace that made her laugh and then kiss him across the picket fence.

"Come on," she said. "I'm going to go inside and get some water for the laborers, and you can talk out your computer problems at me. Will that help?"

"I think, definitely."

She gave a last look over by the windmill, and when Martha noticed them, Lois called out, "Going inside for a minute!" Martha nodded, and Lois said to Lex, "They'll be fine. I think Kal's actually having fun."

"And yet I doubt this is how he was planning on spending his afternoon when he woke up this morning. Does he sleep?" Lex asked as an afterthought. Lois only shrugged.

They had reached the kitchen, and Lex settled down in front of the device again. But before he began again, he reflected, "I'm glad you knew him as someone different than who he is now. If you were once friends, maybe you can understand why I'm doing this. These memories I have tell me there is something in him worth saving."

Lois did not immediately answer as she opened cupboards, looking for water glasses. When she found them, she paused and said heavily, "I had to stop believing it myself years ago."

"Believing that he's worth it?"

"Believing that saving him is possible. I think your Clark Kent is more real to you than the boy I knew as Kal is to me. But I'm on board with this. Not for Kal, let alone for Clark. But there are others who are worth saving, too." She returned to the business of filling the glasses, and handed one to Lex first, saying, "So how do we solve this problem? Tell me what you know."

"We know ... at 4:04 p.m. yesterday, Clark recorded his message, and at 9:13 p.m., Dolman created his. So between those two times, the device got out of Clark's hands."

"Since Dolman knew the effects of Kryptonite on Clark, it's not hard to imagine how."

"Then the message was sent after midnight, presumably by Dolman. But he didn't realize that Clark's message was already stored, queued ahead of his, so Clark's got sent first."

"And worked its magic."

"Except on this ..." Lex indicated the device. Something was taking shape in his thoughts, if he could hold on to it, form it ... "Both of those messages - even the invention of this very thing - they're not part of our past, but they're part of its past. It doesn't belong in this timeline any more than Clark Kent does. But here it is, holding records of events that never happened. Dolman said it would remain in place, where it was last used; he must have designed it that way, to hold on to that other time."

"So to this machine, that time still exists in a way."

"And it has to give us a path to get back there ..."

Something Dolman had said, Lex now repeated to himself: "Get back to before the fracture, and reroute the signal from there." For the first time, that made sense. Now he knew what to look for.

Lois was silent, unmoving, offering no distraction as Lex hunted through the likely files until ...

"Found it," he breathed. Lois straightened, expectant and tense, and he continued, "I have to work out the exact steps, but I know what we need to -"

"Finished!" Kal-El stood at the kitchen door, wiping his shoes, brushing dust off his expensive black clothing before entering, followed by a bemused Martha. Kal-El was beaming -- a wide grin like sunshine. It startled Lex, but it was infectious.

"I'm finished, too," he said. "I know how we can do this."

"You figured out what Dolman meant to do?" Kal-El asked, suddenly serious again.

"Yes. The way it works ..." He searched for the words. "Just before Lillian received that message, that moment had one possible future. Clark's message created a second one. This device can allow us to get our own message into the original future - the one with Clark. But you have to make a sequence of calls: first, to just before the new timeline was created, before what Dolman called the `fracture.' Then, using the same design that causes the device's own staying power when the time changes, the second call is diverted into, well, the timeline that this machine is from -- not ours. So, using the code that Dolman had well-buried in here, we call Clark Kent just before 4:04 p.m. yesterday, and tell him to stop what he's planning to do, and destroy the device."

Lois shook her head, a little incredulously, a little like she was trying to fit the pieces in place. Kal-El was frowning. "All right," he said, "but what's Clark Kent's phone number? Obviously it won't be the same as mine. There was no number of origin shown in the message file. I checked."

"And this is why." Lex snapped open a side panel, pulling out a thin communicator, connected by a cord within the device. "I found this. It provides its own `phone' for the user. You didn't get very far examining this thing, did you?"

"I was a little thrown by hearing my own voice on it. I didn't want to dissect it just then and risk ruining it."

And you had some kidnappings to arrange, Lex thought, but bit his tongue. Not the time.

In any case, Lois interrupted the spat. "It doesn't matter," she said. "I know the number that can reach Clark Kent. The man who interrupted him at the end of his message to Lillian? I'd know that voice anywhere, any time. That was Perry White. Clark is at the Daily Planet. And I'm betting that if the Daily Planet is still in operation there, Perry's direct line is the same as it was here for years -- and I still know it by heart. Call Perry, and ask for Clark."

"Perfect. Give me the number, and I can get the sequence of calls set up in no time, and we're on our way. Unless ... Mom?" Martha had been watching him intently. Lex said to the other two, "Can we have a moment alone?"

"Sure." Lois yanked lightly at Kal-El's sleeve, and they walked outside.

Lex began: "I know I'm asking you to take on a lot --"

"-- and lose a lot."

He tried a small, crooked grin. "Think of how great it will be to have a super-powered farmhand around here."

"Lex," she chided, but with a touch of humor. She studied him for a moment, then said, "Do what you have to do."

"Thank you."

"Do you need me to make this call?"

Lex hadn't considered that option. Would Clark Kent listen to his mother? "To be honest, all along I've been imagining I would be the one to talk to him."

"Actually, that may be best," she granted. "If you were the one he thought he was helping, you would be the one to talk him out of it."

"I want you to wait here -- please -- and get ready to leave. If this doesn't work, Lois and I will come back here, and we are getting out of Kansas, together."

"She said you'd insist on that."

"I will."

"We'll see," she said, but Lex thought he heard concession in her voice. Then she asked, "And if it does work?"

"Then ... thank you. For this life. For being such a good mother. And thanks to Dad, too. I know we had our differences, but ..."

"You know he loved you, too."

"I know." Maybe one perfect day had been enough.

He had one final request for her help: He named a meeting place for her to wait, prepared, for his and Lois's arrival, wait for an emergency, wait for the world to change.

"I hope that Lillian is good to you," she said at last.

Without knowing why, he answered with an unconscious and profound assurance: "She was."

Martha looked as though she were trying to imprint his face in her memory.

"Mom," he said with a regretful smile, "I have to go save the world."

And she let him go.

Chapter 10: Release

The late afternoon sun finally broke through the clouds; the humid air seemed saturated with its yellow light, almost making the desolate landscape beautiful again. Smallville's deserted fields and derelict buildings once again were flying past Lois's sight out the window of Kal's vehicle. They were on their way to Level Three.

Lex had sat in the back seat, and Lois, in the front, could catch him in her peripheral vision, but more than that, she could feel his presence, meditative, watching the land go by. He had prepared everything before they left: Lillian's number, Perry's number, and their places in time were set. Dolman's code had been entered, awaiting only the power and the final commands to activate it. Kal would provide access to Level Three and Lex would take care of the rest.

But like hell was Lois being left behind. "You need a back-up. And maybe someone to deal with Perry, too," she had insisted as Lex had tucked Dolman's device away in the inner pocket of his jacket.

She knew he had asked Martha to stay, so she had been prepared to combat his objections, but he had simply replied with a smile, "I thought you wouldn't miss this for the world."

And so Lois had said her goodbye to Martha. If this was it, she certainly could have done worse for a mother-in-law. Lex had said nothing to his mother as they left, but took her hand once. They seemed to have reached a kind of wordless understanding.

To Kal, Martha had said, "Thanks for helping out today."

"Anytime." His voice had been still unsure, diffident -- but he finally had been able to meet her eyes.

Martha had stood outside watching as they drove off, but soon the trees had obscured her from view, and they left the Kent Farm behind.

Only once did Kal break the silence in the fifteen or twenty minutes it took to get to the LuthorCorp factory. He gestured toward a side road as they drove past, and said to Lois, "The caves are off that way, remember? I haven't been there in such a long time. I would have liked to have gone again, one more time."

"Your life isn't over, Kal," Lois said. "You may yet go back."

Kal's words apparently broke into Lex's preoccupied reflection. "The Kawatche caves? Haven't they been under Luthor control -- first Lionel's, then yours -- for decades? What's stopping you?"

Kal looked sidelong at Lois, and said, "Time, I suppose. You get busy, forget to go back. The caves fascinated me when I was young. Lois helped me research them -- the drawings on the walls, the legend they were supposed to tell."

"About what?"

"A hero who is to be the world's protector ... and another one, who was like a brother ..." He trailed off thoughtfully as he pulled into the LuthorCorp lot. "We're here," he said, and added, "If Lois says I may get another chance at this ... I'll tell you about it later. It's an interesting story."

"I look forward to hearing it," Lex said.

The plant was not making fertilizer anymore -- they had been unsure of its use for years now -- but workers dotted the lot in front of the main building. Kal drove past them, leaving them behind to scramble in alarm as they recognized the vehicle. "There's another entrance that will take us nearer to Level Three," he told his passengers.

The area where he finally stopped was less populated -- just two impassive guards whom Kal ignored as he strode past with Lois and Lex in tow. Once inside, they were greeted by the rapid and fearful approach of a hard-hatted man whose eyes widened in shock when he saw the two people standing behind his boss.

"You are to leave me completely undisturbed," Kal said before the man could utter a word. "For all you are to know or do, I am not here. Come on," he abruptly ordered his companions.

Lois saw the employee's expression change to one of distress when he was no longer in Kal's purview, as he watched the President and First Lady pass him by. What does he think Kal-El has in store for us? Lois wondered. And a fleeting question followed: How big of idiots are we being,* following the lion right into his den*? But she did not turn back. She looked at her husband, who seemed to have retreated into himself again, but his eyes were watchful. Lois knew that he was tracing their route, scanning the long hallway for landmarks, until Kal took them through a nondescript door. Beyond that was an elevator.

Its doors opened with a groan; inside, it looked years out of date.

"There's no Level Three," Lois said, looking at the buttons. But when Kal pressed what looked like an empty spot on the panel, it lit up, and they lurched downward.

The elevator opened on to a metal walkway that looked over a cavernous warehouse. Their footsteps clattered on steel as Kal led them to a far end where stairs took them to ground.

"So it does exist," Lex said, taking a few steps into the vast, empty room.

"What?" Kal asked.

"Level Three. We had a farmhand who left us to come to work here at the factory. Then he got sick, and started ranting to people about the secret experiments that made him ill, in a place called Level Three. Lionel Luthor denied it existed. We all thought Earl was delusional. But he was right."

"I think I remember that," Kal said. "Didn't he kill someone?"

"He told my dad it was an accident. He died before it even went to trial."

"I'm sorry."

Lex turned back to Kal, looking mildly surprised. He said reasonably, "In this case, it wasn't your doing."

"I suppose not. That one, Lionel can take the blame for."

"Where do we go now?" Lois asked.

Kal walked to a pair of steel doors opposite the stairs and, after determining they were locked, he wrenched them open. Lois peered into the darkness beyond as Kal said, "The room is straight ahead, down a staircase. It's unlocked, I hope. I can't go any farther."

He had scarcely finished speaking when a thunderous boom assaulted their ears, rattling the catwalks above them, loosening ghostly particles of dust in the eerie light.

"What the hell?" Even as Lois spoke, she knew what had happened.

Lex replied with one whispered word: "Pete."

How long had they been missing? Almost twelve hours now? Witnesses had seen who was responsible for her kidnapping, at least. Pete had waited, but had eventually taken the next step.

"We've got to get below," Lex said as Kal-El stared in shock at the ceiling. Lois still stood by the mangled steel doors, braced against the frame, waiting for the end of this moment of foreboding calm. Lex grabbed Kal's arm, pulling him toward the door.

"I can't go down there," Kal said.

But Lex knew as well as Lois that soon above would be no safer for Kal than below. "You have to --"

The next hit came. Lois heard herself scream out Lex's name as the entire ceiling seemed to come down in front of her. Before she could act on her instinct to rush out to him, to put herself in harm's way, Kal had thrown Lex to the ground and covered him, taking the blow of a chunk of masonry. It shattered off Kal's back, leaving Lex unharmed.

But Kal was not. The entire ceiling had not, in fact, come down, but enough had. The Kryptonite bomb had punched threw, and while steel and concrete could not crush Kal, the bomb's shrapnel brought him down. He rolled off to the side, writhing in pain.

"Lois!" Lex called to her, but she was already there. "You've got to get him home. Get him back to the farm."

"How? I can't drag him back to the car."

"With this." He held out a small cylindrical object. "It's how Dolman got me to Smallville."

"The transporter."

"Yes. Grab hold of him, press this button, and it should take you to the storm cellar. I told Mom to wait for us there, and it's the safest place on the farm now anyway. I asked her to have a first aid kit on hand. Do what you can for him."

She took the cylinder from him, and paused just long enough to meet his eyes and say, "I love you." Then she quickly moved to Kal, knelt beside him and placed her hand on his shoulder. "We're going now," she said in his ear. She poised her finger over the button, and before she pressed it, the last thing she saw was Lex staring at her intently, until he vanished from her sight, along with the ruins of Level Three.

Lois found herself, indeed, on the floor of the Kent's storm cellar, with Kal stretched out beside her, apparently insensible.

"Lois?" Martha spoke from behind her. "My God, what happened? Where's Lex?"

"He's fine; he went on alone. The factory was bombed, but Kal was the only one hurt. It's Kryptonite. We've got to get it out of his skin."

If Martha questioned the wisdom of reviving this man, she did not show it. She reached in a pocket and handed the ring to Lois. "Get rid of this," she said. Lois scrambled up the stairs, opened the door and unceremoniously flung the ring into the grass. Even in the twilight, she could see smoke rising on the horizon, but for now there was no noise to indicate more bombs were hitting the LuthorCorp plant. She knew of no other targets in Smallville. Trying not to think of Lex lying under the factory's rubble, she descended again.

Martha was kneeling beside Kal, a first aid kit by her side, and was trying to both quickly and carefully remove his jacket. Lois crouched down to assist her. "Kal," she said, lifting him as gingerly as she could, "you've got to cooperate a little here." At that, he painfully opened his eyes for the first time since they had returned, and seemed to attempt to help. Once the jacket was off, Martha made short work of his shirt with scissors from the first aid kit. Her eyes widened at the extent of the wounds on his back.

"Lois, I don't think we can --"

"Try. We just have to get the Kryptonite fragments out, and then his body can heal itself."

"All right. Just hold him still," Martha said. And so she tried, wincing as she used her crude instruments -- a knife, tweezers -- and murmuring soothing, meaningless words to her patient, who slipped between near-unconsciousness and involuntary resistance. "Almost over now, Kal," she lied.

Miraculously, a faint smile crossed his face. "Clark," he whispered, his voice cracked and fading. "Don't ... you can't ... Wait for Lex to end this ..."

Martha stopped working and said quietly to her daughter-in-law, "This is causing more pain and I will not be able to get all this out of him." She leaned over Kal and gently called him by name. "Clark? Do you want me to stop?"

He closed his eyes briefly in assent and then with an effort met her eyes. "Thank you."

Damn it. They were both giving up. Everything in Lois rebelled against it, but she felt suddenly powerless to fight them, as Kal almost seemed to relax in her arms and Martha, her bloodied hands slightly shaking, packed up the first aid kit.

"Lois." Kal seemed to will himself to consciousness. "You were ..." He struggled to speak, to find the words, then finally said, "It was the only time I felt part of this world."

"Don't you --" She wanted to order him to stop, not to surrender, but found she could barely speak herself, her voice choked, alien to her own ears.

"Your picture on the wall," he continued faintly. "For 500 years. Maybe Clark will know ... if Lex makes it right."

If Lex didn't succeed, hers would be the last words he heard.

"I know," she said, and kissed his cold lips.

If she offered poor solace, it no long mattered. He was gone.

She sat back, laying Kal's head on the ground, and put her face in her hands -- then drew them away, foolishly startled to find they were wet, and dirty. Tears and dust and blood.

When Lois raised her eyes to meet Martha's. The older woman was dry-eyed, but she smoothed the hair off Kal's forehead and said, "I don't remember that he was mine."

Lois could not respond; she felt bereft of words. A muted, distant rumbling could be heard anew. There was nothing left to do but wait, as bombs shook the world above them.

Chapter 11: Crossing

He was alone. No more bombs struck, though the air seemed to dance with green. "There are other targets, Pete," Lex said to the empty room. "Just give me some time." He dashed for the steel doors wrenched half off their hinges and into the darkness, feeling his way down the stairs, toward a dim light that came from the door that was unlocked, as Kal-El had hoped, and slightly ajar.

The workers the night before had disconnected Dolman's device from its cord, incongruously new in the dingy room, connected -- seemingly melded -- into the power panel that covered one wall. He thought he could detect a faint sickly green glow from behind the panel -- the Kryptonite, if Dolman had been right about this. The whole damn place was some mad scientist's experiment, Lex thought wryly as he powered up the device. Even if what he was about to do was part of Dolman's design, it still felt a bit like he was tricking the thing -- tricking the universe.

To reach Clark, Lex had to reach back to the past they shared, before time had been split in two, to the last moments before Lillian Luthor received a message imploring her to leave her husband. So to that time and place the first call would go. Lex knew he had to make it as brief as possible -- not mess with that past any more than he had to. He felt a twinge of guilt to think that Lillian was the one actor in this who had had no say as her life was manipulated. He fervently hoped her fate would at least be no worse than dying anonymously in an Edge City hospital.

His hands were trembling as he put the device's small receiver to his ear. He could do this. He activated the first command, and held his breath as a phone rang.

"Hello." A woman's voice. His mother's voice, he thought with wonder, and found himself fighting the urge to keep her there, hear her speak, say anything to him. He himself seemed to have lost the power to utter a word. She spoke again: "Hello?"

Lex collected himself. "I ... I think I have the wrong number. I'm sorry."

"Oh," Lillian said. "That's all ri --"

His finger darted to the key for the next command, disconnecting her before she could end the call herself. She was gone, but he whispered, "Goodbye."

Now came the real test. Would Dolman's code work, and divert Lex's connection into -- what? -- the shadow of the former timeline? In this world, the number he dialed next should have been disconnected, as dead as the man who once used it, but it was ringing ...

"Perry White. Daily Planet."

Despite Lex's triumphant amazement, this time he did not hesitate; he knew better than to waste Perry's time. "Could I please speak to Clark Kent?"

"Clark Kent?" Perry's voice was frankly incredulous. Was Lois's guess wrong? Was Clark not there? But then Perry said irritably, "Hold on. I'll transfer you." He began muttering, "What am I, some kind of damn secretary now? How do I work this thing?"

Oh no, Lex thought. Do not let Perry handle the technology.

"Wait!" he cried. "Please, Mr. White, I don't have a lot of time, and if I get disconnected, I may not be able to call again. Can you just bring Mr. Kent to this phone?" Lex had a burst of inspiration. "It's for a very important story; I have highly confidential and damaging information --"

"All right, all right," he growled. Lex heard the phone dropped on the desk with a clatter. "Kent! My office, now!" A moment later, Lex heard Perry's voice in the background again: "This better be good. The phone's for you. I guess you're going to miss the meeting." A door slammed, and there was a brief silence.

Lex heard the phone lifted from the desk.

It was Kal-El's voice, perplexed but polite. "This is Clark Kent. Can I help you?"

"Clark -- oh thank God."

"Who is this?"

"It's Lex K--" No, wait, not to Clark. That was not the name he'd know. But Clark filled in the rest.


Whatever Lex had been expecting, it had not been that abrupt chill in Clark's voice. For the second time he was rendered speechless, but this time his heart began pounding. What was wrong? How grievously had he miscalculated, depending on scant, obscure memories ...

"What do you want?" Still distant, but Clark seemed to relent ever so slightly. It was enough to allow Lex to take heart a little and see this thing through.

"Clark, I don't know how much time I have here, so you need to listen. I know what you're about to do, but you can't."

"I can't do what?"

"I know you've got Dr. Shawn Dolman's device; you're going to use it in a few minutes to record a message to my mother. I know this because here, where I am, your message was sent, and it worked. Time changed, and the world with it."

"What?" The voice was only pretending to be remote and disbelieving now. Lex heard genuine shock.

"I don't know what you wanted to accomplish, but it couldn't have been this. I know it couldn't have been this."

"What do you mean?"

"Clark, who are your parents?"

"What? Jonathan and Martha Kent, you know that."

"Not anymore. Not after you sent that message to Lillian. I don't have time to explain how it happened, but here, the Kents didn't raise you. Lionel Luthor did. Alone. I think you can imagine what that means. The powers you have, Clark --"

"Lex. Powers ..." Clark was reflexively indulgent, evidently on the verge of denying any such thing, but Lex dismissed him impatiently.

"We both know the powers you have. And if you had been raised to believe you could use them in any way you saw fit, unchecked ... I am right now among the ruins of what remains of Smallville, of Kansas even. And the world lies ahead. I don't believe that's what you wanted. I heard your message. I believe your intention was to help me, but it can't be at the expense of the rest of humanity, Clark. And it can't be at your expense, either."

There was silence on the line.


"I'm sorry, Lex. I'm sorry couldn't ... help."

"It's okay. I know you tried. I know what you'd do for me."

"I just -- I missed you."

Lex had no time to reply, or indeed divine what could have been behind that statement -- he heard again the thunder of another bomb hitting the LuthorCorp complex. He didn't think it was directly above him, and this room was a bunker. But dust rained down and the noise was loud enough to be heard in another time.

"What was that?" Clark asked.

"The world now. I don't know if we'll lose power ... You cannot record that message. You have to destroy that device before you step foot out of the building --"

Another one hit. "Lex, are you okay?"

"Damn it, Clark, I will be if you just promise to do what I ask!"

And another. An alarming shower of green sparks shot out of the panel where the device was connected. Lex heard Clark give his assent -- "I promise" -- as a wave of green arced out and the light grew blinding. The last thing Lex felt was the receiver being ripped from his hands as a blast tossed him back. The blow as he hit the wall behind him sent him into unconsciousness.

He had paused before he left her standing at the gate. "What?" she had asked.

"Just thinking about the next time I'll see you. As friends of course."

She had seemed ready for a sarcastic quip, but then stopped herself -- instead saying, "You know, it's a beautiful night. Why can't you just be here?"

"Because it's almost over," he had answered with a smile.

"True. Chloe's waiting and I gotta go." But she had stayed to watch him walk to the door, and when he had turned to look one last time, she had laughed and waved him inside with mock impatience.

Had it even happened? Somewhere in his mind, the memories fell away, traded for those belonging to a different time. Many faces were still the same, but they rearranged their places in his life. Others were new, but shaped themselves into painful familiarity. His mother. How could have he forgotten her?

There had been an accident on a bridge, a rescue that began a friendship, changed his life -- that dream had been true, but it had not told him what had followed: a new beginning that had disintegrated into bitterness. All that promise lost.

Now he knew no other life. Time had dispossessed him of any other.

Except, in his unconscious state, he dreamed of a familiar girl standing by a gate who asked him at the end of a perfect day, "Why can't you just be here?"

"Because here," he sighed as he answered the girl in the dream, "seems always the worst place to be."

She nodded as if she understood. "See ya, Smallville," she said before at last the memory of her was extinguished.

Chapter 12: Ransomed

Lex Luthor awoke with a splitting headache. No, not awoke -- came to, he realized with irritation, taking in his surroundings. He was in the dark, dank power center still -- the place where he had found Dolman, who lay dead on the ground ten feet away.

He recalled shooting Dolman; he was just not sure why. He painfully stood up, every muscle aching. Then he saw the gun that had apparently spilled from the physicist's pocket as he had fallen, and remembered: Clark.

He rapidly crossed to the corpse and crouched next to him to retrieve the gun and inspect it. It held green bullets -- Kryptonite. And the chamber was full. He felt some cautious relief at that. Dolman could have been lying, trying to impress Lex; that was entirely possible, even probable. A stupid, fatal lie.

He pulled out his cell phone, but couldn't get a signal. He'd make that call once he was less buried underground, when morning was nearer.

If indeed morning dawned the same, he realized. To the business at hand. He turned to the rickety table where Dolman had set up the Chrono-etalon, hoping it could be salvaged from whatever had caused the overload that had knocked him out ...

It wasn't there.

"What were you even doing down here, Dolman?" he asked aloud with exasperation. "Where is it?"

Dolman's conflicting stories were coming back to Lex. He had claimed that Superman had taken the device and that Dolman had killed him to get it back.

No, wait -- he had simply tried to impress Lex by bragging about the Kryptonite bullets. Did he actually say he had used them? He said that Superman had stolen the device and he had lain in wait for Clark outside the Daily Planet building -- Damn him,* digging into my private files*, Lex thought, suddenly recalling how Dolman knew Superman's identity -- but Clark had never appeared. And Dolman had come here hoping Clark might show up to try to use the thing. Lex didn't doubt that Clark might get some do-gooder notion in his head to change time, prevent some "crime," by his lights, from occurring. But he was also sure the proximity of the Kryptonite embedded in Level Three's electrical system would cripple Clark.

So Dolman was that much more a fool. No surprise there.

But the fact remained that by confiscating the device, Clark had robbed him. Robbed him of years of resources, years given to aggravation dealing with that idiot scientist ...

Robbed him of his mother. He pulled from his pocket a sheet of paper. It was so simple -- now. A cure for Lillian's heart condition, found over twenty years too late, and all he had to do was get it back then, when she was alive, back to her doctors ... and the means to do so had been snatched out of Lex's hands.

"Damn it, Clark," he muttered in the gloom. "You can never, for once, just trust me."

He ascended to the vast room of Level Three itself and tried his cell phone again. This time it worked, and he placed a call. "Mercy," he said to the woman on the line. "I need you both at Level Three. There's a mess to clean up. I'll wait until you get here." He had to make sure the area remained secure until they arrived to take care of Dolman's body. Lex had successfully escaped his Secret Service detail the night before; he could only hope he was still clear of them when he left. At least the Porsche he had driven here was well hidden -- they couldn't spot him that way. Secret Service could be an enormous inconvenience at times.

He stared sullenly at the pile of mangled metal that had once been a catwalk, now cluttering the center of the room, and tried to will himself not to place another call. Dolman had not used any of those bullets -- everything was fine.

He rubbed the back of his head, which temporarily diverted his thoughts: If the device had not been here to overload, what exactly had knocked him backward? Now he could vaguely recall the shockwave coming from the panel itself, but he wasn't entirely convinced that was what happened. Against all evidence, he could swear that Dolman had had the device there at one point. Yet another mystery in his life, but just now, he couldn't summon the concentration to puzzle it out. His mind kept drifting back to another matter ...

He lost the battle, and dialed Clark Kent's cell phone.

"Hello?" The answering voice was groggy, woken from sleep.

"Just checking," Lex said coldly.

"Lex?" Clark was suddenly alert and, strangely, almost pleading. "Wait --"

Lex disconnected the call and settled down to wait for reprieve, when he could leave Level Three behind, free to go above ground.

At his desk in the Daily Planet offices, Clark Kent stared, almost mesmerized, at the cell phone in his hands. That was his second call from Lex in -- how many hours? He looked at his watch. It was just six o'clock in the morning. Fourteen hours ago, then, he received that strange first call -- Lex from another world, a world that he, Clark, had created. And apparently, now, destroyed.

A light, playful smack on the back of his head jolted him back to reality. He looked up from his contemplation of the phone to see his wife standing over him, laden with coffee and an untidy stack of paper and notebooks.

"You know, I kind of figured you were out saving the city last night, but from the looks of you, now I'm thinking you never left your desk."

"Uh ... I was trying to work on the water contamination story -- I'm buried in environmental reports here -- but I was ... distracted. Then I feel asleep."

Lois raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Fell asleep?"

"Just a couple of hours ago, I think."

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah ... I don't know. It's been a weird night."

She frowned with concern, but then he saw her eyes caught by the sight of a melted black lump on his desk. "Oh," she said, "do not tell me that is Dolman's time device."

"It is."

"What the hell happened to it?"

It hadn't even occurred to him until now: She was not going to take this well, and rightly so. "I used my heat vision and destroyed it," he admitted.

"Clark, I tailed that guy for months, investigating what he was up to, discovered his connections to Lex Luthor, before I turned it over to you to let you swoop in and grab the thing. I deserved the chance -- as you promised me -- to inspect it before we both decided what to do with it. Instead, you pulverize it."

"I know. You're right, and I'm sorry. But something happened -- it just became very important to destroy it before it could be used."

"And then you couldn't come home last night to face me?" There was exasperated humor in the question; she might yet let him off the hook, he thought.

"No, I honestly stayed here to work on the story, to take my mind off things."

"So what happened?"

"I'll tell you everything tonight, I swear -- at least, as much as I understand it myself. But right now ... I think I'm going to take a sick day. You'll tell Perry for me?"

She closed her eyes briefly. "You're really not working at keeping on my good side, are you?"


"The mayor's press conference at noon? The one you were going to cover for me?" He realized that he must have looked as haggard as he felt when she continued, despite her aggravation, "And, yes, I'll do it. You don't seem to be in any shape to do the job right anyway."


"You owe me."

"Don't I always?" he asked, giving her the best grin he could muster.

She laughed. "You got that right, Smallville."

Within his hearing, but not hers yet, he could tell that some other workaholic was arriving at this early hour. They wouldn't be alone for long.

"Lois?" he said as she moved to her nearby desk. "If you could have used this thing to change the past, what would you have done?"

She paused in thought, but shortly declared, "Nothing."


"I'm not saying there aren't things I regret along the line, but I'm pretty happy where I am now."

"What if it were for someone else? To help someone?"

"What makes you think you would know what they might have wanted changed?" She studied him as he prepared to leave, pocketing the remains of Dolman's device, and then she asked, "Is this about Lex Luthor?" His expression apparently gave her the answer she expected, for she said with a wry but sympathetic smile, "Face it, you're an open book. Plus, Luthor's the one who financed the device that has you so concerned about this, so I figured. Go on home, and ... sleep it off. Or whatever you need to do."

"I love you," he said, and kissed her goodbye as the door to the newsroom was noisily flung open.

"Oh, keep it at home, you two," Perry White grouched as he headed for his office.

Lois rolled her eyes. "Go on. I'll deal with him."

Clark made his escape before his editor could take any further notice of him. Instead of heading for the street, Clark made for the roof, and next to the Planet's rotating globe, he took flight in the direction of Smallville, not troubling to change from his disheveled clothes from the day before. His destination was vague -- talk to his mom, wander the cornfields, take in an aerial view of home before returning to Metropolis?

Some part of him had decided, he realized as he alighted on Loeb Bridge. His subconscious had taken him where he didn't want to be this morning. Back to the beginning. Back to the place where, if time could indeed slip back as he leaned on the parapet, he really could start fresh. Change the past and the future. Maybe, no matter what they had done, they still would have ended up on opposing sides, but maybe it could have seemed less personal.

It was that conversation with Lana that had done it. He had spoken to her recently, the first time since Lex had lost his bid for reelection last fall. Out with him, of course, was Vice President Pete Ross, Lana's husband and Clark's childhood friend. The Luthor presidency had survived an impeachment, which had been brought on, in large part, by Clark and Lois's reporting on corruption and Superman's efforts to expose Lex's crimes. Lex had ridden the impeachment out, but when his four years were up, he had been voted out of office.

Through the years, Clark had mainly kept updated on Pete's life though Lana, and in this most recent phone call, Clark and Lana had talked of Pete's plans for the future, dancing around the issue of why he no longer had a job.

Clark couldn't remember now what he had said to provoke it, but finally Lana had said gingerly, "You have to admit, sometimes it seems you do everything you can to ruin his life."

"Lana, you know this had nothing to do with Pete ..."

"And you know I'm not talking about Pete."

No,* no*,* no*. That was not his intention. He had an obligation as a journalist to expose corruption, an obligation as Superman to protect the weak. And Lex kept stepping in the way. He had told this to Lana, and she had said she understood, but he was not really sure she did. The conversation had ended awkwardly, unresolved.

Then Dr. Shawn Dolman and his time communicator had entered the picture. After Clark had taken it away from the scientist, he had brought it to work with him for safekeeping yesterday, but it had preyed on his mind. He did wonder what Lex could have intended to do with it; unfortunately, Clark had to conclude, it couldn't be anything good. By late afternoon, he was playing a little internal parlor game: How would you use it? What kind of message would you send to the past?

It was a moot point; he knew from Lois's investigation and from examination of the device itself that it need an external source of Kryptonite to work, which meant, of course, that he wouldn't be able to send a message himself. Perhaps because he knew he was safe from actually putting it into motion, perhaps because Lana's words were haunting him, he had imagined a message in a fit of wishful thinking.

How else could he have used it? He could have sent a message to his younger self -- before he stood on this bridge, was hit by a Porsche and saved a man's life -- and try to convince him to detangle and avoid the thousand wrong choices, wrong words, wrong lies that had led to this moment in time. Impossible. Make it a clean sweep. Save Lex from his father, the real culprit, and then maybe Lex wouldn't be Clark's friend today, but he wouldn't be his enemy either.

And so when he looked up to notice that his area of the pressroom had been emptied -- Clark had forgotten about the impending staff meeting -- he found himself actually thinking of recording it, an exercise in dreaming that he knew was futile. Maybe it would make him feel better. That was when Perry called him into his office. And there, on the phone, was Lex telling him to stop. Clark hadn't meant to send the message, but someone had, and it had gone horribly wrong. It hadn't worked.

Except that it had, Clark thought.

The world had gone to hell around them in that changed time, but there, Lex was his friend. Clark had won him back. A gulf had been bridged, and in return, Lex had saved Clark's life and the world with it. For here Clark was, Smallville peaceful and bucolic, undisturbed by insane bombing raids.

It was a bit self-centered, thinking Lex had righted all that for Clark. Saving Lex couldn't be at the expense of humanity, he had told Clark. Or at my expense either ... Clark clung to that. "I know what you'd do for me," Lex had told him, and there was that, too.

Except if Clark had sacrificed himself for Lex, traded places with him in that other world, it had been unwitting: He hadn't intentionally given up anything. That was Lois's voice talking to him. She might say that very thing tonight, when she heard the story. Her love was unconditional, but her tolerance for Clark Kent's rationalizations was not, he reminded himself, a thought that prompted a fond smile.

For now, he would accept his mother's lighter touch. He'd tell Martha he was playing hooky, and she'd chide him a little if he also confessed to dumping the press conference in his wife's lap. He'd help with some chores, do some heavy lifting, and eat a home-cooked lunch. For a morning, all would be right with the world.

From his jacket he pulled the remains of the device he had taken from Dolman. He contemplated throwing it in the river, where random loose parts of Lex's car could still lie beneath the waters. Burying this here as well would be fitting.

And littering, Clark thought. Sighing, he replaced it in his pocket. It would be dumped unceremoniously in the garbage tonight.

He straightened, preparing to fly to the Kent Farm, but waited for a car to pass behind him. A Porsche sped behind Clark's back and vanished down the road.

When it was out of sight and the road was empty again, Clark headed home.

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