It was just another weekday morning in the Daily Planet offices: "Where's the City Hall article?" and "Chief, the copy machine repairman's downstairs!" vied for urgency with "Where's the City Hall photos?" and "There's ten pairs of scissors in this office! Why can't I find just one?"
The place, a central room lined with offices and conference rooms, had a comfortable untidiness, wooden railings rescued from the Planet's old newsroom and refurbished, desks a little on the eclectic side and sporting here a photo of spouse and kids, there the inevitable pothos vine, a scatter of disks, printouts, file cards, folders, notepads, newspapers, and magazines --- around computers wired to the world.
It was a newsroom, a nerve center: it was wired in, plugged in, and it put out one of the finest newspapers in the world. Desktop computers spilled the latest from Baghdad and the Poconos for the benefit of any reporter who urgently needed to know.
But today the wire feed was as slow as the news in Metropolis. The President was vacationing at Camp David. The Vice President was due to attend a fundraiser in Philadelphia. A labor dispute in the Metropolis Public Works Department was headed for arbitration. During the night someone had dumped a load of trash in front of City Hall. So far it was the lead.
"The coffee's out," a high-pitched voice complained loudly. "Where's the coffee service?"
No one answered her. No one wanted to take responsibility. Nobody wanted to suggest to Letitia Frenk, society columnist, that she might risk her manicure on the job by actually making some coffee.
Into this organized chaos Claire Kent arrived for the day, late, and shed her raincoat onto the coat tree in the less trafficked corner. Louis Lane's coat, likewise on the tree, was still dripping. So, the Planet's star reporter was late, too. She'd had trouble getting a cab in the rain, they always seemed to melt in the rain. She idly wondered what his excuse was. She hadn't kept him up late last night, that she knew for certain.
"Dinner at six-thirty," Louis said, intercepting Claire on her way past the wooden railing.
"Dinner? What dinner?" Six-thirty meant it wasn't a matter of grabbing something on the way home. Home to his apartment or hers; they'd been known to continue working after hours. Not that things ever went any further than that...
So if that wasn't it, what was it? She'd been known to forget things. This man could pass hints right past her absent attention, and she was afraid she'd slipped something this time, when she was listening elsewhere or using faculties that weren't quite... apparent to the world around her.
A little absentminded, was how the rest of the office characterized Claire Kent. But as she followed him back to his desk, into the center of the heartbeat of the newspaper, he cast her an over-the-shoulder glance with a little self-satisfied smile that said, no, this was news he was telling her --- happy news, wonderful news, I've-got-a-secret kind of news. Or maybe he was just teasing the girl from the boonies.
There were times when she wished that he would go beyond teasing. So far, he hadn't even tried to kiss her. Not even a goodnight kiss when he brought her home after one of their dinners.
"Dinner. You know, food. You and me."
His words and teasing tone interrupted her thoughts and sent them off an entirely different direction. A date? Was he making a date? Not with Supergirl, but with Claire?
"There was a cancellation," he said triumphantly, "at The Twelve Tables."
The Twelve Tables? She was too surprised to stop herself from asking, "You're asking me?"
But maybe not surprised enough to look thoroughly delighted.
That delight vanished even as his smile widened. "Unless you can get in touch with Supergirl and ask her to have dinner with me."
One part of Claire's mind wanted to slap him. Another part wanted to tear open her suit to show him the blue outfit with the big red S on it underneath and tell him just how easy it was for her to "get in touch" with the true object of his affections.
There were a dozen things she wanted to do, and more. And she knew she couldn't do any of them, not a one. Not here, not anywhere. Not now, maybe not ever.
He misread her surprise. "Claire, you have to know how lucky we are! This place is absolutely booked solid, just absolutely impossible to get a reservation! I'm going to pick you up at your apartment at six. At six, latest. Don't tell me you've got another engagement!"
"Great," Claire answered. And told herself she meant it. Dinner and theater in London or a trattoria in Rome had always been in reach for her, personally. The world's best theaters. The most exclusive restaurants. She could always go globe hopping. But she only rarely indulged in that kind of whim --- for one thing, because a reporter's salary didn't extend to meals at Alfredo's, and for another, because she'd grown up with harvest-hand breakfasts and suppers back home, and American country cooking was what she truly favored. Bobby Lee's, a roadside diner on the old coast highway south of Metropolis, served up chili cheeseburgers to die for.
But Louis had inherited a taste for Metropolis's latest and trendiest restaurants from his ex-fiancée, and from what Claire had heard of the place, reservations were hard to come by. It was a quest, an acquisition, a Holy Grail. And they were going tonight, to a tiny, exclusive, and expensive place called The Twelve Tables (aptly named, since that was the number of tables), which was the rave of Metropolis.
She'd originally wondered whether the fancy dinners were a remnant of his brief fling with one of the wealthiest women in Metropolis. And they probably had been. But she also suspected that they were his way of trying to impress a girl from the boonies. She also suspected the chairs were going to be uncomfortable, the premises crowded, the flowers edible, and the portions more like a sample than a satisfaction. She didn't need much food; she could draw energy from other sources, but she'd grown up working on a farm and could eat like a farmhand. Would he be satisfied?
But he did seem to enjoy taking Claire to some of those fancy places, usually after making sure she'd read Nathan's piece in his restaurant review column.
And he was going to be happy. Making him happy would make her happy. She truly believed that the way to a man's heart was through his stomach. And he was the kind of man who could enjoy Bobby Lee's chili cheeseburgers, too.
So, at least for this day, there wasn't a thing wrong with the world. The Twelve Tables, it was, then. She memorized the appointment. Her apartment at six. Early dinner.
Maybe a movie, then. Maybe they'd just talk and listen to music. Except she was countryand western and he was classical. Maybe they could watch television. Her apartment. She had just gotten around to getting the cable hooked up,
Too bad they couldn't do anything more. She longed to be able to slip into something more comfortable, invite him into her bedroom, and then...
No, she couldn't do that, and she knew it. Louis had already given his heart to another girl, and Claire had a secret identity to maintain. It was simply unfortunate that they were the same girl.
She caught herself frowning at the thought, and hurriedly wiped the smile off her face.
Louis had seen her smile, and felt a pang of guilt at disappointing her. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy spending time after work with Claire. But it was clear she'd been expecting something to happen. Something more than two coworkers unwinding after a day's work. She'd even cooked dinner for him a couple of times. Simple home-style cooking, nothing like what they would have tonight at The Twelve Tables.
Seeing Claire looking at him, he gave her a smile as she sat down at her desk, which was directly facing his. She sat down at her own desk and dropped her purse into the bottom drawer.
He was pleased. Claire could see that much in the enthusiasm with which he attacked the keyboard. Though it was probably with the locale of tonight's dinner than the company...
For this night, at least.
"Who's seen the coffee filters?" Perry White came back complaining. The editor-in-chief was on a quest. Coffee was an operational necessity in the newsroom, regardless of the hour.
Claire turned on the computer and punched keys from memory as the bootup sequence proceeded. She wanted weather reports for the evening, for starters. They'd probably take a cab tonight. It was raining outside, a cold, end-of-April downpour. By what she saw on the weather it wasn't going to clear up anytime soon. The fronts were stacked up and waiting. Springtime.
Lunch in the deli around the corner was the likely choice today, a course that didn't leave the shelter of awnings and overhangs.
Meanwhile the computer was pulling up stories she'd been tracking, topics she'd preselected, a steady stream of crises, court cases, and miscellany.
Perry was investigating counter cabinets, opening and slamming doors. Louis, at the facing desk, punched a key with reckless authority as lightning flashed outside the windows and Jenny Olsen finally came up with the missing filters.
Coffee would come welcome, Claire thought. The McCormick lawsuit over school districting was the local lead story and the headline if it wasn't the city workers' dispute or the far more photographic City Hall trash episode. The national news was the vice presidential speech and the international feed was the World Economic Conference in Brussels, which Claire followed and studied. It did have a foreseeable impact on Metropolis and on the state. But Perry wanted her on a brewing controversy over the power plant.
She wanted to do a feature on the proposal to demolish the old Mueller building in favor of municipal parking, and Perry called it taking sides. But with a little reportorial query as a nudge, the Historical Sites Committee had this week become aware and was stirring to action in protest of the quiet and marginally legal sale of the building. She'd heard rumors that was the case, and she was keeping a close eye on the matter, waiting for the break.
The mayor's office was in favor of the parking garage, the HSC was about to come down on the other side, and her source hinted the end of next week for a news conference and a counterproposal. Her fault? She was glad to have it be her fault. It was a beautiful old building of the art deco period.
Meanwhile she was searching up clippings on the building's murals and unique architecture that were otherwise doomed to urban salvage.
"Want some coffee?" Louis asked. He'd made the pilgrimage to the machine while she'd been sunk in her information flow and oblivious. She held out her hand. The cup arrived in it. She drank a sip --- he knew better than to dilute hers with sugar or creamer --- and stared at the photos of the mural. She wanted those run in color. Full-page local feature. She wondered how she could talk Perry into it, and she needed to write down the web address for a reference on architecture she thought she could use.
A computerized desk never had a pen. She took another sip of coffee and, simultaneously searching the side drawer that held such things, came up with a pen. She wrote www, or tried to, on the notepad, and the pen ran out of ink --- victim, she remembered now, of one of her fast-and-furious note-takings during a phone conversation last week.
The computerized wire feed scroll, minimized to run in the background, beeped at her and came up with a highlighted item: Dam Failure Threatens Towns.
Tbilisi was the dateline, the origin of the wire feed; the story was from the remote Caucasus, part of the former Soviet Union. She called it up, dam and flood being two of the words she'd set as Page-Me criteria she'd set in the fancy new software program, Electronic Desk, Perry had been sold on. A keystroke got the dam article full-screen.
The situation had been chancy in that district of the world since the earthquake last January. Engineers in the region had been acutely concerned, particularly about the highest dam, whether it would withstand the thaw in the hills, when snowmelt would swell the rivers that fed into the lake it held.
It wasn't withstanding the surge of water that it was undergoing now. What came up from the wire was almost as dire as it could get, excluding another quake. Beyond the initial paragraph siting the disaster in the Caucasus Mountains, near the Caspian Sea, it said:
A powerful storm system has sent eight inches of rain down on a river already swollen by spring floods. Engineers last week ordered the dams in the area to open spillways and lower water levels in an attempt to reduce pressure against the dams, but the rainfall amounts combined with snowmelt and strong prevailing winds have produced an imminent threat to the first and most compromised of the dams.
Built as part of a modernization push by the former regime, the dam...
The computer didn't produce text as fast as she could read it, and she knew what the rest of the article would say. She already had what she needed. She had an atlas on her desk. She set down the coffee and picked up the atlas. She took it with her in a calm, ordinary walk to the hall that led to the conference rooms, a far more reliable refuge than most places in the Planet offices.
Then, out of sight of her coworkers, she could move at the speed she wanted. She opened the atlas and scanned the European maps at a flash. The area map she took with her, as providing detail she might need.
Then she left that end-of-the-hall conference room at a speed that riffled the pages of the atlas. She opened the door to the back stairwell ever so carefully compared to the speed at which she wanted to move, passed through, and pulled it shut at a speed that didn't blow the hydraulic cylinder.
Once in the isolation of the stairwell, she could let down her hair, shed the blue suit, shed the self that moved like ordinary women. And then she looked up, and up, feet leaving the floor, course spiraling faster and faster up the stairwell with all senses alert to anyone using those stairs. There was no sense of power at first, not even of speed, just a lightness of being, just an impatience to be up the stairs and moving, and a knowledge that using the steps at superspeed would shake the spine of the building. It was a sinuous twist of body and a flight path up, up the stairwell, The pressure of air thumped the windows on the doors --- windows that reflected only a blue-and-red blur off their disturbed surfaces. The floor numbers, painted on the walls, blurred past: 13, 14, 15... 20 and higher: fast, but not, even yet, fast enough for the air shock to rattle doors and set off alarms.
The door at the very top of the stairwell, carefully handled, afforded her an exit onto the roof in a gray soup of blowing rain. With all of Metropolis spread around her, blurred in mist, she delayed only to drop the packet that was Claire into a heavy-lidded hiding place that looked like (but wasn't) a feature of the Planet Building's roof-access cupola. Lightning whitened the roof, threw details of the cupola into stark light and shadow, and before the light faded from her eyes or the thunder rolled, Supergirl was off the roof, skirting the big globe surmounting the building, climbing up into the heart of the storm.
There was no restraint now to her speed. It was like plowing through a lake, the rain a steady sheet around her. No need to calculate direction. The Daily Planet was her launch point and her compass rose. She knew her heading and she knew her course.
And there was no need from this starting point to worry about traffic: she rose high and higher, and struck out to enter an ascending air corridor she used and none of Metropolis's airports assigned or allowed to any craft.
She had no way to breathe in the sheeting rain, but no need to breathe yet, either. The potential for lightning was in the clouds she sped through. Lightning attended her in a crazed cloud-to-cloud display as she continued to climb higher and higher.
Then she broke through the gloomy gray clouds into the brilliant day that existed above the storm, rising into increasingly colder and thinner air. Here she breathed like a swimmer in surf, water streaming off her graceful feminine body and then freezing in her wake. Snow might have followed her, however briefly. She'd never seen the phenomenon. Today she had a map she couldn't, because of her speed, resort to for guidance; but she knew the general course she was taking toward Europe, and she could see the morning sun for a guide. Clouds obscured the shore and the sea, but she knew that she had the ocean below her now, and knew to a nicety the moment she could break out and fly at a convenient speed.
Faster still. Past the sound barrier --- and traveling a course that didn't rely on the jet stream or the prevailing winds. Aerodynamics counted, and the substance of the opposing air streamed around her, battered at her, failed to resist her. When she took to skies untroubled by aircraft and unfettered by considerations for sonic booms and traffic, nothing on Earth flew faster, higher, or further than the girl from Krypton.
Lives were at stake on the far side of the world; and no person on Earth except the girl from Krypton stood a chance of helping those people if that dam went. Four more dams were downriver. That whole region, rocked by earthquake and deluged by spring rains, was in imminent danger.
A nearly full cup of coffee stood cooling on Claire Kent's desk. Louis Lane thought nothing of it for ten, fifteen minutes. She might have had a dozen reasons for walking away.
Sixteen minutes, however, was at least reason to notice.
Seventeen was a reason to look around the office and wonder whether Claire was in conference with Perry in his office, or on some other phone.
Twenty was reason to conclude something was unusual. It was half past ten, or thereabouts. Claire had left her computer running. That said she meant to come back.
Or at least he assumed so. And the copy machine was fixed. Ron Myerson had reported it to the office. She wasn't tied up there.
A quarter of, and Jenny Olsen stopped by to ask where Claire was. As usual, the petite redhead was wearing blue jeans and one of her ubiquitous sports team T-shirts, this time a blue NY Giants shirt. He sometimes wondered why she didn't request a transfer up a couple of floors to the sports department if she was into sports so much.
He could give no answer to her question when he had none to give.
"You going out to lunch?"
This question, he could answer. "Pastrami on rye, if you're going to make a deli run."
"I don't know." Clearly that wasn't Jenny's hope. "There's awnings most of the way to Foggarty's." She had such a crush on him, and with Claire apparently out of the picture, at least for the moment, she was pressing for all she could get. Not that he and Claire really had anything going, tonight's dinner at The Twelve Tables notwithstanding.
He tried to put a damper on it. "It's wet out there. Have you noticed? The sky's falling."
She wasn't going to be put off that easily. "I've got an umbrella."
So did he. He needed to try another tack. "Sure. Look. Have you got an assignment?"
She shook her head. "Nothing's doing yet."
"Good." He put on his brightest grin and leaned his chin on folded hands. "Hot mustard, Hold the pickle."
Jenny knew when she was being ragged. "Maybe Ron's game for a swim."
He briefly considered suggesting to her that she ask Letitia to accompany her out into the rain and then immediately castigated himself for it; he liked the little redhead too much to wish Letitia's company on her. "Oh, okay, I'll think about it." He hadn't worn his best shoes because of the weather, but if was to be an expedition he had a pair of sneakers in his desk he could put on. He had a big, special dinner coming. Too bad it wasn't with his preferred partner. Still, The Twelve Tables was The Twelve Tables, and that was the real consideration.
So was Claire's unexplained absence.
But it was a gray, gloomy lunch in the third consideration, and the reservations for this evening had put him in a celebratory mood. "Foggarty's is tempting. Don't leave without me."
Jenny went off on her own mission. Louis got up, curious about Claire's whereabouts, and circled around to her side of the desk. Her computer had gone to screensaver, a sequence of pictures of country meadows and galloping horses and a ramshackle barn. He nudged the mouse and got nothing of significance, just the parking garage controversy and Claire's notes.
So she hadn't shut down her computer; she was coming back. Her raincoat was still hanging on the coat tree by the door, so she hadn't left the office. Probably.
She'd been gone for half an hour. Too long to be just powdering her nose. And she hadn't said a word to him where else she was going.
He walked back to the conference rooms. There was an atlas open on a table in the endmost room, but nothing else. Gathering it up, he saw it was Claire's.
He walked back to the desk and put the atlas back in Claire's stack of books, still wondering where she'd gone, and why. Her coat was still on the coat tree. She wasn't absentminded enough to go outside without it. Not with this rain. Or was she? Some of the staff joked about Claire forgetting her head if it wasn't part of her. She'd leave the copy machine on, leave the computer on, leave her coat, leave her reference books lying about as she had just done with the atlas. Something was missing? You looked where Claire would have left it.
"Pastrami on rye?" Jenny asked him glumly, having found, evidently, no takers for the wet trip to Foggarty's.
He gave her a look, telling himself he'd set it up, he'd suggested it to Jenny, and now he was doomed to lunch from a sack. "We'd better get a little something for Claire, too."
Jenny's spirits had begun to rise at the sight of Claire's desk still vacant, but now they fell at his mention of her perceived rival's name.
Not that he was really involved with Claire. It wasn't as if could ask Supergirl to dinner at The Twelve Tables, was it?
"Nah," Jenny said, shaking her head and moving closer to him. "Let her get her own."
"No, we'd better..."
... get her something, was what he had been about to answer.
The whole building shook. Swayed. Stopped. Sound had rumbled through bone and flesh and everybody in the office stopped where they stood for that heartbeat, then looked at the ceilings, at the floor.
"My God," someone said. Someone else: "What was that?" And irresistibly, then, the general movement toward the windows. Louis was moving toward that helpless vantage before conscious thought caught up: it wasn't this building, he was sure it wasn't this building. But something monstrous had happened...
Information wasn't in here, in the office. Perry, Jenny, Ron, even Letitia, everybody was moving toward the windows that afforded a limited view of the street, give or take an overhang.
In the sudden, proprietary search for first crack at a story --- one that he was sure was going to involve Supergirl --- he ran, detoured past the coat tree on his way to the door, and checked the cell phone in his pocket as he passed down the hall.
He didn't wait for the elevator. He took the stairwell down, running, the sneakers in his desk forgotten.
"Hey!" he heard behind him. He'd been the first to think "story" but not the only one. That was Jenny. There might be others taking the elevator.
He hastened his pace and kept ahead of the pack, down to the door marked Lobby.
Cold, damp air hit as he pushed that door open and exited into the lobby of the Planet Building. Cold wind and gray daylight came from the glass doors. There wasn't a soul in the lobby. He ran across the terrazzo floor, and his steps raised echoes. He shoved his way out the chrome and glass doors and came out under the dripping emblem of the Planet Building.
Traffic on the street had stopped. Burglar alarms were going off. Sirens were blowing, the security kind. Men in raincoats were running toward uptown, two kids on bicycles were threading the traffic, and people all up and down the block stared in the direction the men were running --- toward a billowing of dust and a column of black and white smoke coming from... it looked like midway down their block.
Someone blew a car horn. A bus near the curb blocked his view. Its exhaust went up, odorous and white against the gray chill.
But beyond that, down the street, black smoke billowed out. Black smoke. Or dust.
Cars coming toward him were coated in pale, rain-pocked mud, and down the block they sat frozen still, coated to a uniform paleness and carrying shattered pieces of concrete on hoods and roofs. Traffic in the intersection wasn't moving.
The whole observation might have taken half a dozen heartbeats. "Louis!" he heard Jenny shout after him, but he started to run, like the men ahead of him, like others on the block, toward that pillar of smoke and dust boiling up so unlikely in the rain.
And over all, that mingled pillar of dust and smoke went up and up into a deluge that washed it out of the sky somewhere among the towering skyscrapers. Down here, heading into it, it stung the eyes and nose.
Through it, in his jolted vision, he saw the tumble of concrete where a major building had stood. He didn't know which building, at first, then realized it was the hotel: a new hotel, the Madison Metropole, and where the Madison's beautiful frontage had stood, a gap sent out smoke and dust and tattered, bloody refugees.
Sirens foretold ambulances. A woman in a black suit and stylish high heels staggered toward him over the carpet of crushed glass. Her nylons were in bloody rags. He offered a hand to guide the dazed woman, but she said, "Others! I'm all right," and pointed back into the boiling pale haze from which others were emerging.
"Louis!" Jenny had caught up, bag over shoulder, a camera in hand. "God, was it a bomb?"
"I don't know!" he said, and at the same time a man was calling out, "Billy! Andy, where are you?" The smoke had started his eyes watering, and Jenny snapped pictures, her flash coming off the smoke and the dust, limiting her range and all but blinding him.
He ventured into the gap on a reporter's mission, with the thought as well that people might be dazed and needing the sense of direction he maintained toward the outside and safety. "That way!" he shouted at two men he met and pointed a coughing chambermaid toward the frontage and daylight.
Then, about where the elevators were, came kids, three, four of them, the last pair hauling along between them a sports bag as big as they were, all of them with faces stark and shocked. Dust made a coating over freckles, the green of sports team shirts.
"Keep going!" Louis shouted at them. "The exit's that way! Go for the light, you can walk right through!"
"Billy and them's still downstairs," the freckled kid said in a shaky voice. "They were going to get stuff from the car. We just got up in the elevator..."
Kids. A sports team. The parking garage.
He knew the layout of the hotel, and there was a garage, valet parking, underneath the glass tower. "Get out to the sidewalk!" he shouted. "Get yourselves out of here! Are you a team? Is the whole team in here?"
"Yes!" the boys shouted at the same time, and something about their coach checking in at the desk.
"Anybody who can has already run outside!" Sirens from outside nearly drowned his voice. "Go! Get help! Tell the police what you told me! Now!"
They believed him. In shock, or in the strange priority of kids, they took their sports bag and dragged it through the glass and the dust, headed for the murky daylight.
He tried not to breathe the stuff, and feared for his lungs, but there were other kids in the building, maybe lost, maybe trapped. A stairwell behind the elevators went down from here to the garage: he'd been on assignment in the Madison, and he knew the layout. He reached that stairwell through a tangle of fallen ceiling tiles, and it looked intact, but the only light through the brown haze of dust came from emergency lanterns bracketed at the landing. From behind him, against the shattered walls, red light strobed into the dusty air, heralding the arrival of emergency vehicles on the street outside.
He was at the stairway, and he didn't know what was below, whether boys were trying the stairs in the blinding dust, or whether they might be trapped in the elevators, or worse. But he was in a position to find that out with a fast look, to report to emergency services --- or direct them out, if he could find them.
He reached for support as he started down the steps. He recoiled from moisture, and saw liquid running down the wall and down the steps... of course: rain, from the outside, from the shattered roof.
But a turn further down dashed all his hope of finding the boys within easy reach. He saw darkness, devastation, chunks of concrete, tilted slabs crushing parked cars. There were skeins of hanging cables, picked out by the emergency light against a cavity otherwise dark.
Electrical cables. He was suddenly alarmed and checked his feet. He was standing on a dry spot. The stairwell on which he stood was the only whole structure, a stairway from which the light found only edges of concrete and the shapes of crushed cars.
"Hey!" he yelled. "Anybody hear me?"
He thought a voice yelled back. He wasn't sure. It was a tossup in his mind whether to run back up the steps and get the emergency crews on it --- but those were kids. With electrical cables down and water pouring down the walls and live wires.
"You stay put, hear me? There are live wires! Do you hear me?"
There were voices. "We're down here!" he heard high, anxious voices with the edge of panic.
"Stay put!" Kids. God, he didn't know what to do, didn't dare let them panic and go scrambling around in the dark. His hand brushed against his pocket as he dropped his arms. He had... his cell phone.
He dialed 911.
Line busy. Jammed. You could figure it.
"Where are you!" someone called, a young voice, desperate with fear. A youngster in that place below was asking to know his location, maybe trying to go to him through a world otherwise dark. "Where are you?" the faint voice called.
"I'm at the stairs! You wait!"
A chunk of concrete fell, unexpectedly, from the sagging concrete ceiling. It was only the web of rebar, the metal reinforcing rods set within the concrete, still holding it up. That, and the tilted slabs that had been part of the floor, and crushed, dusty cars. He hoped the cars had all been parked.
Jenny caught up with him again, having dug a pocket flashlight out of her camera bag. "Can you see where I am?" she shouted into the dark, shining her light around.
"No," the voices came to them. "It's dark down here. Billy's stuck, and we can't get him out!" And another voice: "Get my dad! Please get my dad!"
Louis tried the cell phone again as Jenny continued to try to pierce the darkness with her little flashlight.
He dialed the Planet. Nobody was answering the phone. Of course. They were all outside. They were all investigating the disaster.
Ring. Ring. Ring. Come on, somebody pick up the phone...
Water leaked down the wall, a steady flow that turned the dust to mud underfoot and dripped down from the ceiling. Water meant dust would run off, not pack down and support the slabs.
He tried Claire on autodial. If Supergirl didn't already know about this, Claire had the best chance of getting word to her.
Ring. Ring. Ring. Claire hadn't been in the office and she apparently wasn't at home, either.
Jenny was going forward, one hand on the wall, the other holding her flashlight.
Louis tried the next autodial, any number at all on the buttons in the dark.
And got through to Nathan, the restaurant reviewer: "Daily Planet."
"Nathan, for God's sake, who's there?"
"Is that you, Louis?"
"Yes! I'm with Jenny in the stairwell of the Madison Hotel parking garage. The emergency lines are jammed. Kids are trapped in the parking garage underneath the rubble. If we get stuck I want somebody to know where those kids are! I'm going to hang up now. I'm going down after those kids. There's wires and water all over the place! Tell the fire department!"
"Louis!" Nathan objected, but Louis didn't have time for discussion.
He folded the phone and tucked it into his pocket, and shouted up the stairs. "Help! Anybody hear me? There are kids down here! Help!"
He yelled, and hoped to all the stars that Supergirl would show up. She had to know by now... if she was anywhere in sight. Her superhearing might have picked up the sound of the collapse. She might hear him. He expected her, he believed in her, that at any moment she'd show up in a whoosh of disturbed air and that Supergirl would save those kids.
But it wasn't Supergirl who came scuffing ponderously down the steps above them. It was a shape from outer space that loomed in the yellow light at the top of the pile, carrying a blinding beam: a man wearing the oxygen tanks, face mask, and hazard-yellow reflective stripes of the fire department rescue team. He pulled the mask down and called out to them, "Are you hurt?"
"No!" Louis yelled back. "But there are kids trapped down here! A soccer team... there's a bunch of kids in this hotel! One's stuck, or trapped! We may need paramedics!"
"Are you a doctor, sir?"
"No, I'm a reporter for the Planet! Can you get a medic down here? And there're wires hanging all over the place!"
"The power and gas are getting cut off right now! I'd rather have you out of there, sir. I'll give you a hand up..."
Jenny's voice came back out of the darkness. "I know where they are! I can hear them!"
Louis didn't know whether the fireman could hear her. "My partner can hear the kids," he relayed. "We're not leaving them!"
"All right, sir." This was a man in a hurry. And this man's partner claimed line-of-sight knowledge of survivors. "You stay put! You stay right there, and don't touch anything. Those lines aren't off yet, and concrete is still coming down!"
He was going for help. Thank God.
"Go! We're all right!" Louis watched him turn, ponderously, and ascend the stairs, taking his emergency light with him. He likely had a radio. He'd get help organized down that stairwell. They'd mark the place for him, steer help to the voices they heard. He left them because it was the expedient thing, to have a witness, on-site, who knew what they'd heard, if those voices should go silent.
"Where are you?" the young voice called out to them.
The kids they were looking for. They were nearer. And that meant they were moving around. Risking their lives among the fallen wires and puddles. They might have seen the fireman's light flare out across the tangled wires and shattered concrete --- and seen it go away again, and feared they were being left.
He could just barely see Jenny's little light; it was normally used only for checking her camera settings in the dark. He carefully found a safe way across the floor to her and heard the kids clambering over concrete rubble below him.
Jenny shone the light over the rim of stable floor and both of them saw a pale young face down a slope of crumbled concrete. Then a second boy looked up out of the destruction and the dark, toward a figure that could only be a shadow with a pinprick of light in their darkness.
"All right, it's all right," Louis said, coming up beside Jenny. "The firemen are coming." Jenny was keeping the light on them, to relieve their panic. They were maybe eight or nine years old. They were also scared out of their minds.
"I want my dad."
"Is he in here?"
"He's in New Jersey."
It was all but grimly funny. "Then he's all right, isn't he? And you're all right. What are your names?"
"Andy and Mike. But Billy and Gene is both stuck."
"Back over there!"
Jenny's little flashlight wasn't strong enough to reach much further. There was a pile of rubble. That was all Louis could see. Billy and Gene, wherever they were, weren't visible, and his heart sank.
"You get up here," he said. "You climb up right now, to us, and you be careful. There are electrical wires all over. They'll kill you, you understand, if you step in water or if you touch a wire. I'm not kidding! Get up here!"
The kids scrambled, knocking rock down. But they weren't that badly off, scrapes and bruises, a bloody forehead. From the level where he was, there was a staircase visible. Salvation. The strobing red lights of emergency vehicles for a guide. And, please God, rescue personnel.
"You walk straight to the stairs and you don't step in any water! Hear?"
"We can't leave Billy and Gene," the other boy said.
"We won't leave them. You get up and tell the firemen to get down here!" In following Jenny, he'd gone beyond the place the fireman had told him to wait. But they sent two boys out in their stead. And they could be their messengers, across a floor clear of electric lines, toward a lighted stairs. "Tell them! We need help!"
They went. The light of that stairway drew them. They flinched together as another chunk of concrete came down, and a sifting of dust followed, gray powder that had been solid concrete. But he saw them make it as far as the stairs, he saw them advancing up and up the steps, being careful all the way of the hanging wires.
"Where'd you go?" a ghostly faint voice asked from his other side, out of the depths of crushed cars and fallen concrete. "Where are you guys?"
If two boys had been able to climb up the rubble slope to get to him, then someone could go down it. The occasional sifting of dust advised him there might not be time to wait for jacks and equipment. There were kids down in that dark place, kids with no light, no help.
Jenny obviously thought the same, or perhaps she wasn't thinking; she left the stairs, over the side, kept a hand on the slope and went down, gradually, gradually --- slipped as rubble gave, and scraped her knee, but the raincoat saved her from most of the rough edges.
"Guys?" she called into the dark, and heard a faint, fearful, "Yeah?"
"My name's Jenny. Your friends got out. They're safe. They made it to the stairs. How are you doing? Can you see the light I'm holding?"
"No. We're in a hole!"
Bad news. Disheartening news. She caught her breath. "How are you?"
"Pretty scared. And Billy's foot's stuck or something, and there's water coming in."
That didn't sound good. That didn't sound good at all. Louis didn't want to tell the kid what the extent of his danger could be. He hoped that they had the power cut off, and that there wasn't a line near that water.
And he couldn't wait for firemen, if one man's strength might be able to pull rock off or free a frightened eight-year-old. He followed Jenny, navigating the dark by question and answer, and by following the faint glow of her flashlight --- listening, over the noise of running and dripping water, the occasional fall of a pebble, until he followed that voice to a narrow gap between slabs. There a major support and a slab still held up the floor of the garage above --- against a horrific weight of concrete. The improbable wreckage of a car, of which one wheel and a concrete-dusted bumper were visible, sheltered a kind of tunnel, a passageway into the deepest dark yet.
"I'm here," Jenny said, squatting down, shining the light in. "Who have we got here? Can you move?"
She could see just faintly a young black face, a boy trying so hard to be brave. "What's your name?" she asked.
Gene Pratt, they discovered through rapid and gentle questions, was eight. Gene couldn't make out the opening that was left, which was mostly small pebbles and dust. Andy and his friend had gone for help because they couldn't move the rock that separated them from Gene and Billy. And when he tried, Louis couldn't, either, not even when Jenny added her help. He didn't know what it might be propping up. That big slab over their heads was possibly relying on something this skull-sized rock held in place.
"That's all right," he said. "Firemen are coming. We'll get you out." He was grateful the kids hadn't pulled things at random. He could feel where it was mostly dust.
Jenny had gotten flat on her stomach with her raincoat for padding, peering into the hole. "How much do you weigh, Gene?" she asked.
"About eighty pounds."
"That's good. We don't have to dig so much for eighty." She scooped out a fistful of gritty wet dust. "You dig and I'll dig," she said. She'd propped the little flashlight where she could get a little light past her body. "You push the stuff toward me and I'll rake it out. All right?"
"Yeah." Gene had been trying to shove stuff out. She started clearing it back, raking it past her right side.
Louis was just getting down on his knees to help Jenny when his cell phone rang.
"God." He scooted back and unfolded it, hoping for Claire. He didn't know how she did it, but she had the best pipeline to Supergirl. He could forgive her unexplained absence from the office if she could get Supergirl here. "Hello?" Here he was sitting on cold ground in near dark with the sound of dripping water and the constant, ominous sift of gravel from overhead --- and the phone rang. "Hello? This is Louis Lane."
It was a feminine voice on the other end, but it wasn't Claire's clear soprano.
"Mr. Lane, this is Carmen Alverado, LNN. We understand you're in the Madison Metropole Hotel and you've seen trapped kids. There are desperate parents wanting information, Mr. Lane. Can you tell us anything?"
LNN. Television. A rival news organization. One he'd worked for, albeit very briefly.
But parents wanting news of trapped kids...
"Yes! I'm in the parking garage underneath the Madison Metropole Hotel, I think about the second or third level. I'm in touch with two young boys. They're in a pocket with concrete and cars holding up a slab. Their names are..." He didn't want to make a mistake, not with parents' hopes riding on his accuracy. His voice was wobblier than he'd have expected. Professional, calm, he told himself. "Billy and his friend Gene Pratt." He leaned over Jenny, who was still shoveling out mud. "What's Billy's last name, Gene?"
"Anderson," came the shaky, scared voice. "Is that my mom?"
"Gene Pratt. Billy Anderson. Two kids just climbed out: that was Andy from New Jersey and his friend Mike. Is Billy awake, Gene?"
"Yeah." He heard another voice, "Yeah, I'm okay, I'm just kinda stuck."
"Billy Anderson just answered. He's in a predicament, and the other boys couldn't pull him out. We're trying to dig, here, my colleague Jenny Olsen and myself." He was giving information to frightened parents and tried to preface bad news with good, remembering that not only the parents but the boys themselves could hear what he was saying.
"You're saying one boy is pinned in the collapse..."
"Yes." With all the structural steel about, and below ground, he wasn't sure of the quality of the transmission. "Can you hear me clearly? We're staying with the boys. I've talked with a fireman who's gone after equipment and help. Right now the area seems stable. There are electric lines down all over, but the fireman told us they're cutting off utility connections to remove the danger of the lines. Are you hearing me?"
"Yes! Please stay on the line! Please don't break the connection. Phone service to the area is interrupted. Can you talk to the boys?"
"I have talked to them." He'd have liked to hang up and call Nathan back at the Planet and see --- if news was at issue --- whether he could turn in a story from where he was. But LNN was a sure route for information to get out of this basement, and right now LNN was where scared parents were calling for information. "I'm on the level just above where Billy is, and I can hear them." To whatever parents were listening, "They're good kids. They sound in good spirits."
"Were you in the explosion?"
"I was in the Planet Building, and I should correct that: it didn't sound like an explosion. The Planet Building shook. I ran outside and saw smoke, or steam, and dust, a lot of dust, even in the rain." The environment of dark and strange-smelling stone, this small hole Jenny was in and trying to widen, was so complete he'd forgotten how to imagine the rain outside for the moment, the safe, ordinary streets of Metropolis outside, where there'd be fire trucks and ambulances and police and rescue workers and a gathering horde of news services.
His concern was for the youngsters below: at a shaky, gut-deep level he knew there must be lives lost in this mess. He hadn't seen whether the whole hotel had gone down or whether the collapse was confined to this area in particular: but he had two more precious lives located, people were relying on him for information critical to the boys' rescue --- and somewhere in the equation, he held a position that every reporter out there would ache to have.
If they had his telephone feed on the air, and knowing LNN he'd bet they did, he was going to get a couple of points for Perry and the home team, paper journalists that they were. "I should say, by the way, that, with Jenny Olsen, this is Louis Lane, reporter for the Daily Planet."
In the high, thin reaches of the stratosphere Supergirl flew high above the weather, up where the brilliant blue faded to a deeper shade, and where air resistance was minimal. Cloud cover over the ocean was solid, but she had a feeling for time and distance that didn't depend on seeing where she was going. The same way a practiced runner had a sense of his speed and distance, she didn't need her special vision to know she was still over water, and she had a fair sense of how fast she was traveling.
More, she knew her flight path, having flown this route to Europe many times before. Knowing this emergency could come, she'd studied in advance that local map she'd torn from her atlas. She wished she had a GPS receiver so she could navigate using the constellation of Global Positioning System satellites orbiting the planet, but not even the military had one small enough and, more importantly, rugged enough, for her use.
That was why she had taken the page from the atlas, as insurance, a chart to show her the fine details once she reached the distant Caucasus. But in the main, she knew the important landmarks on the routes she used, and equally important, she made it her constant business to know the current course of the jet stream and the state of the world weather. She knew all manner of things: the height and extent of mountain ranges, the behavior of the sun, the calculations of speed and height and temperature of the winds aloft, the barometric highs and lows, the fronts, and everything else that she could gain from sources pilots used. She kept her information up to date constantly, never knowing when an emergency she hadn't studied was going to turn up to send her halfway around the world.
This situation with the unstable dams had entered the news with the earthquake weeks ago, and she'd done her study the first time the matter of how those dams were constructed came over the wire. In the earthquake, they'd held, cracks in the walls, no one injured. The more grave matter was the question of the dams, five in succession, which (two in particular, the uppermost, hanging like stair steps in the high valley) were under examination by an international committee of engineers --- as they should have been studied before they were built, from what the UN said. The old regime had been very quick to put up those high dams, her sources hinted, to shore up a shaky local government by bringing in electrical power, but there had been another motive in that hasty construction: to afford local officials a means of breaking up a coalition of ethnic groups in an area only uneasily ruled by the old regime.
Land had been flooded when those dams were built, creating new lakes. Farmers of certain ethnic origins, who had lived where those imperiled lakes now stood, had been moved and placed under close government supervision. It was a new government, now, but those dams were a dangerous legacy of bad old times and a regime that had, for various reasons, concealed incredibly bad decisions from the outside world.
Supergirl normally didn't interfere in politics. But this wasn't politics. This was nature straightening out the kink in her tail... or bidding fair to. Earthquakes didn't care about national borders. And earthquakes happened frequently in the region; and this one was a tremor only moderately sharper than average. A test of the dams' integrity was bound to have come someday. Because it came now, after the collapse of the old regime, after glasnost, it attracted international interest --- and international interest in a bad decision stirred touchy local habits of secrecy and protective bureaucracy.
All of that was simmering along as engineers tried to reason with political interests and regional pride.
Then Mother Nature came in with another punch: spring, and an unusually heavy snow last winter, a correspondingly heavy snowmelt in the mountains, and a strong front moving out of Europe. Rain had started, a lot of rain. The engineers had had a plan ready --- but rain was bad news for those plans that had come over the wire this morning. It was very bad news.
She was flying into night now, moving away from the sun. The stars were brightening, and below her, as she whisked along past the planetary terminator and into the side of the earth away from the sun, the view ahead showed her the coast of Europe lit up like some exotic fabric.
She made a minor course correction, less than three degrees. Clouds, after the gap along the French coast, closed in again, soft gray to her night-adapted eyes. Soon the peaks of the Alps were coming up above the sea of cloud.
Jungfrau and Matterhorn: navigational markers. She put them at her back and made another little change of course, putting the right stars in front of her.
Greece. The Turkish Frontier and the Black Sea. She flew high, high above political boundaries where her radar signature, if her body had reflected any radar waves instead of absorbing them, might have tripped alarms and scrambled fighter aircraft above the ancient and disputed land of Anatolia.
Then she was approaching the Caspian, a body of water heavily abused by politics and pollution, but not yet in sight of it. She began her descent and felt more substance to the air. The sky below and ahead, the ridge of the Caucasus, ancient home of myth, modern home of ethnic strife, looked like spun-glass floss lit with lazy flashing lights. That was a thunderstorm seen from above, at night.
The friction with the air began to heat her body. Then, her body began to absorb the heat, using it to fuel her body in lieu of the lunch she had missed. And the dinner she was likely to miss.
The peaks of mountains thrust above the storm. She identified Ebrus, at the Balkarian-Georgian frontier, and used the more than eighteen-thousand-foot summit for a navigation point as she dropped below the speed of sound, looking for the faint light of villages, of the city Vladikavkaz with its airport. The mountain ridge itself, Mquinvartsveri, distinct in its height, gave her her bearings as she veered off north and west.
There was the high valley, up from Kislovodksk and other towns long unheard of in Metropolis --- towns remote in their mountains and now caught between the political push for the Caspian's oil and the ethnic bitterness of centuries, Chechens and Russians, Ossetians and Georgians, and nationalities most of the West had never remotely heard of.
In these valleys the last regime, determined on industry, had built the ill-considered dams, stopping the snowmelt on its way to the Caspian, quick construction, sufficient to get electrical power.
And to hang above the heads of thousands already suffering from years of war, pollution, and ethnic strife.
And now was the time for precision, Now among all the deceptive folds of the mountains that looked as alike as trees in a forest, and different from every angle, she had to pick the right one.
At this speed and in the dark and the driving rain that had come down since her passage below the clouds, she couldn't hope to consult the map she'd brought: she relied instead on the memory she'd established from that map and on the memory she'd refreshed when she'd looked at the atlas back in the conference room half a world away. The names, the contours, the seams in the earth that were the source of the quake, jostled for place in her estimation of location.
There! The curve, the sharp bend of a river and the dam that checked its flow, the white plume of open floodgates and the froth on the river shining bright to her eyes. She'd found the river, and she followed it through the folds in the mountain flanks to the next in the chain of dams. She chased that thread of river and used her night vision, seeing warmth, not daytime light, scanning that dam for any flaw, any seepage of cold, deep lake water against sun-warmed concrete --- but the brightest was the discharge plume.
That one proving sound, she flew on, still following the river, passing the burning-hot spots in the storm-drowned night that were villages and livestock. Eight inches of rain and still coming down.
If word of the impending disaster had gone out to the villages above, then the people in the most threatened village might not be sleeping. She hoped they might be trying to get to higher ground --- fleeing as people in the remote regions had always fled, afoot, carrying their goods on their shoulders, or in carts or wagons.
But the road that might have led them along the mountainside, a road that might have stayed high and dry above the disaster, grew more narrow and more precarious --- and she saw no movement, no indication of general flight on this isolated strip of gravel, in a darkness where gasoline or diesel engines would have shone like fires in her amplified vision.
The high-country residents then didn't know their danger. The thought that registered that conclusion lasted a split second of the seconds it took her to blaze along a lake surface in a valley and chase the climbing road to the next dam. Her hands in front of her, battered by the rain, created a wind pocket that let her both see downward and breathe. She could feel the building charge of lightning grow around her and shut her eyes and locked her arms tightly across them so as not to be blinded as the exchange of energies blazed past.
When the electrical fury was gone, a second along in her flight, she made a wild dodge to avoid a mountain ridge, and in that turn simultaneously saw the dim glow of a town beside a lake. The dam that made that lake was not so great as she'd imagined from its function --- but it was hydroelectric. She couldn't pronounce the name of the place, but she knew that it was the next to last of the chain.
Closer and closer in two beats of her heart... and she saw in this dam, as at the others, what the wire service had reported as their best hope: that plume of white. As spring melt and rains were at this very moment pouring a freak abundance of water into the system, this lake was spilling water down to the other dams in a roaring discharge column out the spillway, this one the most impressive yet.
This dam created power for the small town that sprawled up the hillside below the dam at the level of the road, out of the reach of ordinary floods and, she hoped, of this one. Their power lines ran from the hydroelectric plant: she could hear their presence singing to the lightning, and reminded herself they were there, huge towers along the mountainside, a hazard to her flight and most of all to helicopters and other rescuers.
The International Red Cross was working in this town --- at least they'd been there last week --- and they knew the danger. Two weeks ago, the date of her best information, scientists had overflown the area, trying to assess damage. They likely were still trying to assess it, back in their labs with their aerial photographs; but whoever had taken the definite professional risk to order those open gates to take the lake levels way down, both to study the dam and to try to reduce the pressure, was in her estimation heroic. It was the one piece of good planning she'd found; and in the press of other emergencies, reassured that the spillways were reducing the threat on an ordinary time scale, she'd thought she could leave this situation to the Red Cross and the international relief agencies for a number of days, until wiser heads than hers --- including representatives at the UN --- figured out what, ultimately, to do about dams that shouldn't have been built in the first place and lakes that shouldn't have been sited where they were.
The trouble was, aftershocks had continued to make the relief work and the assessment difficult. Political forces were still wrangling over responsibility for having built the dams, the engineers hadn't reported a solution for what was proving a tough situation, and now the signs of collapse, the report said, were undeniable --- in the dam upriver from this one.
Chasing the road, Supergirl rose into the teeth of a rain-laden gale, along slopes scarred with recent landslides, legacy of the quake, in pale areas of ruin that had tumbled trees down with boulders. It went on for miles, a river running briskly under an old iron bridge, and the thread of a road going on after that on the other side of the river, a road sometimes lost in trees and at one place completely wiped out by a landslide.
There was no chance people could have gotten past that. She could have cleared it and shored up the road in minutes, but if imminent collapse of that dam threatened, there wasn't time for people to use that route, even if they would. The residents of the high villages, remote from the rest of the world, had already refused, in what contact anyone from the relief agencies had had with them, to be relocated to a town they didn't trust.
The highest dam, that remained the question: the dam set above the river where the road crossed. If it went --- and took out this one --- the catastrophe to the region would involve more than a village cut off by a rockfall.
Supergirl didn't have the engineers' knowledge, but she could deliver them a report they'd be glad to have. They looked at individual photographs and printouts: her vision, on the scene, was binocular, dimensional, and integrated into her brain in a way as ordinary as the act of breathing and as quick as a glance; and maybe if she could see the damage and find local authorities, they could establish a plan of action that might include fixing that road. But it was a case of first things first and a situation that, with all those successive dams involved, could be more complicated than anything she'd tackled before. She'd seen the tragedy of unbridled industry in Eastern Europe, and she didn't want to act as the previous governments had, without consideration, spreading toxic materials that might be piled up in the silt behind one high-country dam down to land already ravaged by ill-considered industry, a river already polluted and flowing into a damaged sea.
And, pale wall that it was in the dark ahead, Supergirl suddenly saw the critical dam --- more, she immediately saw that irregularity where the stresses on the dam had made seepage around the floodgate.
She wanted finer detail as she came in. She sharpened the focus of her eyes on a smaller area... unlike the engineers, she didn't have to organize another plane, another picture taking, and placement of instruments. She saw things immediately, things she didn't like at all, things that, whatever her level of expertise, told her that the concrete that was supposed to hold back vast acre-feet of water was starting to go in a significant way.
She maneuvered for a better angle, telling herself now that she should have followed her instincts and come here months ago, directly after the first quake.
Now, in the freak direction of the storm, in the worst luck that could befall the region and the situation, the force of he wind was coming at the lake in such a way that the water was actually overtopping the dam as a torrential rain poured down on the mountains. The gates were just inadequate.
And that wasn't the worst. The worst was the anomaly in the dam face, the thing that drew the acute focus of her vision. It didn't even require her conscious thought: that sharp glance just instantly was, and the sight of the leakage was, and she knew there wasn't a way in the world to stop it. Everything she'd ever read and all the knowledge she had gained in similar crises told her that once the water had begun to flow through cracks that extensive, it would only increase, too rapidly and at too many angles to stop. The concrete, inexorably, was going to give way.
Divert it elsewhere? Water ran downhill no matter what any girl from Krypton could do, and downhill was the next dam, prepared, yes, with that lowered lake level to sustain the flood crest that by the time it reached the lake would be a watery monster with teeth of uptorn stone and wood, a gravity-driven surge that would slam into its lake and drop that load --- but that might not be enough to dispel its force. And if that dam gave...
Freeze it? A gamble. She had superspeed, but the sheer mass was daunting. Even to put a patch on that crumbling concrete --- freezing expanded liquid water, and freezing a patch onto that already uncertain dam might be the same as driving a wedge into the crumbling concrete, and hasten the process instead of hindering it.
Boil it off? Again, it took time, it was a huge mass, and what would happen when that much rising steam hit a cold and already charged atmosphere? Rain was already sheeting down so thick it choked and blinded. Rain was already falling on mountains and pouring down to augment the disaster. And chemical changes would follow, and the biomass of all that lake of fish and algae and who knew what else would rot, doing further damage.
Break the spillway wider, try to lessen the abrupt force of the flood to come? The whole dam might go at once, before she was able to get people out of its path.
A vortex of wind, a tornado straight to the stratosphere? Worse and worse.
Everything she thought of was another disaster with increasingly outré events and ramifications. Water was coming through that gap while she hovered in doubt of what to do. When it cut loose it would come fast, one of those processes in nature that, once started, would operate so fast even she couldn't hope to stop it.
Superspeed was for one thing, in this situation --- for rushing down along that slope to the faint glow of life she'd passed on the way to the dam, a glow that shone like a firefly in the dark. Not an electric light in the place.
And no way to escape.
Life. Helpless life. She couldn't save the creatures of the mountain forests, those whose instincts would, if they were frightened at night and in the storm, lead them to burrow deeper. Their instinct to hide, ordinarily their salvation, would kill them tonight.
And there was nothing the girl from Krypton could do to save the creatures of Earth that would hide and not run.
But for that brightest glow, that resolved from one glow into a huddle of firefly lights down the valley --- for them, she could make the difference between life and death.
She didn't land. She passed like a storm wind through the streets, pounded at every door fit to wake the dead --- or those in danger of dying.
"Wake up!" she shouted to the winds and the mountainside --- in Russian, which in a region of languages she didn't speak she thought her best hope. "The dam is breaking. Danger! Come out, come out now!"
Doors opened, sending light out onto the puddled, rain-pocked ground. People had been asleep and stood amazed, surely, at the unprecedented visitor in their street, a vision who flew --- and looked --- like an angel and paused and shouted at them about danger and the dam.
They may not have understood the messenger but they understood the message. She saw the terrified glances toward a menace out of sight in the dark and the storm, hanging literally over their heads.
They began shouting at each other in a language among the fifty or so in the region she didn't know, and other doors opened to hails and shouts she couldn't understand. Villagers poured out of dimly lit houses, some struggling into coats and others carrying and leading children. She saw a farm wagon sitting idle by a shed and snatched up a woman and her little girl and set them into the wagon bed, snatched up an old man and did the same.
Then the villagers understood that was the way to safety, and almost as fast as she could pile them in, they were running and trying to board, ten, fifteen maybe, before she shoved the others back at superspeed, so quickly and so firmly they might not know what had pushed them.
She shouted in Russian, "I'll come back!" and " Wait!" and dived under the wagon and took off with it, not as fast or as high as she could fly. The wagon would never take it. But it was faster than that wagon had ever moved, for certain, and there were childishly squeals and adult outcries from above her, some excited, some crying out in alarm and --- she hoped, as wind hit her unstable load --- holding on tight and keeping their heads down.
She dared not gain any altitude, for fear that one of her charges might take a fall unnoticed. Dodging random trees and outcrops of rock, she scanned the dark for a safe spot to establish these people.
She found it at the edge of a high woods, above any threat of rushing water --- set the wagon down and urged the villagers out, quickly, lifting down the ones who didn't immediately jump for the ground. They called out names to her, and she knew they were the names of fathers, mothers, sons and daughters.
"I'm hurrying!" she cried, and seized up the wagon and left again as fast as the wooden structure could bear.
Frightened people were still standing in the dark and the rain, believing her promise, bringing out far too many of their household goods, with their children, a struggling dog, a crate of pigs. She didn't have the ability to argue with them in their language. She just took whatever children and anxious relatives the wagon could safely hold and made another trip.
And a third. This trip an old man held a crate of rain-soaked chickens, and they went into the wagon. She had no time to argue with the man. Another man was trying to get a goat cornered. People came first, but she couldn't dissuade the ones with baggage or livestock in their arms. She just took the tightest-packed load she dared, carrying each wagonload to a growing knot of people on the edge of the forest, all huddled in what blankets they'd managed to save. By now they understood the drill and shouted to each other in their language, urging people to jump down, or get up, or whatever the situation required. She lost count of her trips. She thought there might be a hundred people all told.
But when she'd carried the last wagonload of people, something still seemed missing, to their distress. People pointed down the mountain, and said a word to her, and one teenaged boy tried very hard to tell her in broken English what she couldn't understand, in the local dialect. Grandmother, she finally understood, in Russian, from a young woman. Babushka! And something about the village and a cow.
Someone was missing. Someone she hadn't saved. Someone had gone after livestock and was still in danger down there.
"I go with!" the boy cried in English, pulling at her arm with one hand, pointing into the storm-lashed heavens with the other. "Go, go, go, please!"
She normally would have objected to a teenaged boy grabbing her arm like that. But circumstances were far from normal. There was nothing sexual in it. Right now there was only one woman in his mind, and that was his grandmother. The blue-and-red angel he held was just a means to rescue her.
She snatched the youth under one arm and jumped for the sky, shielding him from the bitter windchill and rain-choked breaths of her rapid course as best she could with her cape and her shoulder. His clothes were immediately soaked, and his hands and feet, she was sure, must be chilled through by the time she reached a hovering stand above the threatened village.
"There, there!" the boy cried, pointing down. True enough, her own eyes saw the illusory glow of body warmth --- two such glows, in fact, one quite large and four-legged, and the other small, on two.
She whisked down onto the path in front of a rain-battered old woman leading a cow by a halter and trying to keep a coat and scarf about her.
"Nana!" the youth cried as they landed on the hillside among the trees. But the old woman clutched her shawl close as if fearing contagion or capture and refused his offers, if one could read the gestures, to lead the cow himself. She struck away his attempts to separate her from the rope, and no matter how strange or intimidating the caped, brightly clad figure involved in the process might seem to her, she would have no rescue, clearly, that did not also save the milk cow.
"Nana!" the youth pleaded, and won nothing.
There was no way to talk it through: the dam was failing. Supergirl expected it at any moment, and in a quick decision, she snatched up the young man and the old woman, each under an arm, and flew back to the gathering point with, to her, agonizing slowness and great gentleness. She was fearful of putting stress on the old woman's joints with any speed; and she was fearful, too, of crushing her, with her struggling and shouting and kicking all the way --- blows that hit mostly air and occasionally Supergirl.
A formidable woman, Supergirl thought, as to the cheers of the villagers she set foot on the ground and set down her two charges safe and sound.
But the old woman cried and struck at Supergirl with her stick and waved gestures down the mountain.
Claire Kent had grown up on a farm herself. Supergirl understood. A howling blizzard came down on you and you got out in the pickup and carried feed to the cattle; you had a newborn calf in a driving cold rain and you carried that calf in your arms back to the house and warmed it by the kitchen stove.
And if you were an old farm woman with one single cow to your name you risked your neck and led that patient, unassuming creature the slow way up the mountain, no matter if your arthritis was aching and the rain chilled you and a flood was about to sweep you both away.
Supergirl knew, and she was instantly off into the night, this time heading down the slope as fast as she could move --- even a girl from Krypton couldn't find a balance point on a scared wet cow with her bare hands.
She opened the shed door, grabbed up canvas and rope from inside, and scanned the area on her way up the hillside, looking for strays. There were loose chickens, a barking dog, a pony in its pen behind a house; and having taken note of their locations in the village, she went uphill fast, before a lost and confused cow could lose itself in the trees.
It had snagged its halter rope in the brush, and she jerked it free of that impediment. She flung the canvas under the cow's ribs, reinforced it with the rope, and hauled the startled animal up with all the speed she dared.
She set it down carefully and let it go, she trusted, to a grateful and happy old woman. Then she took her canvas sling and went back after the pony, which didn't want to be caught. But it had no choice, matched against her superspeed and her rising impatience to get downriver.
The whole village was happy to see the horse; and the mangled Russian-English converse she had with the soaked, shivering villagers assured her there were no outlying houses but Grandmother's, and no villages but those safely above the dam.
But livestock --- there was precious livestock, there were treasured goods, there were appeals for help and rescue for all they owned in the world.
If the dam should go this instant, Supergirl had confidence she'd lodged them high enough that no effects could reach them. It was sustenance they lacked --- clothing, shelter, and the animals and their livelihoods, without which they were destitute.
So back she went down the threatened hillside, this time at a speed that launched a storm wind in the trees and rattled rocks loose on the slope. She found feed sacks and bagged two pigs, and chickens, and finally caught the barking dog; she made trip after trip with animals shielded from the effects of her speed in sacking or, in the case of the dog, her cape.
She was asking herself all the while what she was going to do when the dam did finally break, simultaneously trying to think of answers and keeping an ear out for what she feared she'd hear at any moment: the thunder of all that water let loose.
But she had her next load lined up and she had the gratitude of her rain-soaked refugees to encourage her. She made a reckless last dive downhill with the wagon and set it down in the midst of the village.
Then she visited every house so quickly she did do damage, and piled on the wagon bed every piece of canvas and rope she could find, axes, kitchen knives, jewel boxes, bowls, pots, and food, everything she could drag out of the houses, right down to matches, quilts, sewing kits, a pair of saws, a couple of hoes, and a shovel.
In one house, where the kitchen fire was still burning, she found a wooden box full of kittens and under the kitchen stove a mama cat who took great exception to a stranger and more exception to being caught.
But just then came a strange rumble that might have been thunder but wasn't. She shoved the frantic cat in with the kittens, wrapped the whole box up in a tattered quilt, and whisked her wagonload, cats, kittens and all, up the mountain as the rumble continued.
It was the last load of everything a farmgirl from America's heartland thought other farmers might most want to save... and a last living prize in the lot that someone might be glad to see.
She reached the villagers. Just as she set her load down, the roar she'd been dreading came rolling up out of the valley, the dark down there turned boiling white, and a chilling spray came up at them despite the rain as the ground itself shook. The villagers cried out in shock.
A herd of deer rushed past them, panic-stricken, saving their lives. The horse bolted a distance away and then stopped in confusion. To Supergirl's vision, perhaps to that of others, the boil of water down in the valley, the length of a football field below them, became a thing of strange, lacy beauty, as the flaw in the dam became a general collapse.
Supergirl leaped for the sky and chased that wave front of death and destruction, flying in the dark and the chaos along its leading edge, looking for life in its path, but the rumbling in the earth warned wildlife into an unlikely flight into the dark. She saw a trio of deer --- she thought they were deer --- leaping along the valley road and up the slope, and hoped they made it.
The white line of destruction roared and rumbled behind her, and in an instant there was no village. There was only seething white where the village had stood.
No more land, no more fences, no more woods. A plume of water maybe thirty, forty feet high went shooting up above the flood where the deluge hit a spire of rock.
She dived through that plume on her way down the valley. The bridge vanished as she watched, just vanished under the boiling white torrent. The road that led to the bridge was inundated, maybe eroded utterly, she couldn't tell and didn't wait to see. She flew in a burst of speed so great the air friction warmed her skin. The flood surge was restrained only by the friction of water over the land and the resistance, however brief, of obstacles, and she outflew that mile-a-minute rush of water as it pursued a crooked course ten, maybe twenty miles to the lake below.
How did one protect the next dam? The hydroelectric dam had the floodgates open, preparing the lake to receive the spate of rain and spillage from the dam above. She had that leeway to work with.
She spotted the lights of a little watchman's station at the side of the floodgate. This dam was at least three times the size of the one that had failed, with maybe --- maybe --- a chance to hold the tree-toothed monster that was coming.
She landed in front of the office and knocked --- incongruous act --- at a door that wouldn't receive many visitors. The blare of music inside ceased. Possibly the gatekeeper was taking time to tidy up, in fear of a supervisor pulling a surprise inspection. She bashed the door with the flat of her hand and broke the latch, bursting it from its hinges.
The watchman --- he was alone in the station --- saw her appear out of the dark and rain, a bright blue and red vision of femininity that the man had never, for certain, seen before.
"I'm Supergirl." She made her two-word introduction in Russian and pointed up toward the higher valley. "The dam has gone."
"Gone?" It was not a stupid question. The language interface wasn't a good one here, any more than with the villagers. Clearly Russian wasn't this man's language. But the man, maybe in his forties, mimed a structure falling flat.
"Da," Supergirl confirmed, nodding, and kept her word choice down to the absolute simplest terms. "The dam has broken. Telephone! Quickly! Tell the people, tell the town, tell the other dams!"
The man might have asked if she'd dropped in from Mars. That Supergirl was known throughout the world didn't necessarily include a power station in the Caucasus any more than it had included that village up there.
But, white-faced, primed and ready to believe implicitly in this particular disaster, the man snatched the telephone and called someone in a spate of the local language, not panic, but urgency trembling in every syllable.
Then he pushed a red button, and a siren blared out into the night.
That sound had to be an authorized warning, reaching everyone in town at once. Summoning help. Warning the dams downstream.
Supergirl's acute attention was on the map on the wall, a contour map. She could see villages designated, she could see two other small towns downstream that were definitely in danger if this second dam went. The gatekeeper was talking urgently with someone on the phone, and she looked with equal urgency for any place hinted at in the contour lines of that map to divert the disaster that was going to hit this dam in a massive surge.
There was no such place visible, even on this detailed a scale.
The watchman had put the phone down and said something beyond Supergirl's fluency. The man was afraid for his life. That took no guesswork. The dam would hold now or it would not. This man, probably the operator of the floodgate, had staunchly come up here, held his post, and made his call of warning to the towns downriver.
And now he could do nothing more.
Supergirl didn't wait. She flung an edge of her cape about the man, against speed and windchill, snatched the man's coat off the peg by the door, and whisked him out the door and through the night at all the speed she judged he could bear as far as the first lights of the town.
From there, the man was on his own, on two feet, and in reach of shelter and telephones.
Supergirl still had some time left before that deadly wave broke out of its valley and surged across the lake. She leaped for the air, climbed through the storm and above the dam, searching the far distance across the lake for any signs of the disaster. But it was a wide lake --- the best hope of all the dams to sustain the flood surge. Here, the ruin of one small dam was pouring down on a vastly bigger one.
If a piece of debris, some log traveling on the force of that surge, didn't follow the outflowing current straight for this dam's vulnerable crest, it could knock a hole in it.
If that happened, then a disaster of twice the scope was going to pour down on the dam below this one, which would have far less chance of withstanding the onslaught. She only hoped the officials the man had called would sound the civil defense warnings downstream without clearing it with higher-ups in the capital, and she couldn't guarantee that would be the case. If there was no evacuation, and if this dam failed, there would be a human tragedy on a vaster scale: lost homes, lost businesses and farms.
She had to hold it here. This time, with a sound dam to work with, she had to stop a destructive force that came --- she could see it now in the distance, at the other end of the large lake --- not as a towering wall, but as a line like a ripple proceeding across the lake, deceptively calm.
She didn't have a map for the topography of the land beneath the lake, the land before the dams were built. If it shelved, if there was a submerged rock, the wave might break and go chaotic before it hit the dam. In the narrows of the valley the flood would have been a high, white froth that would skim at a mile a minute over the surface of the slower water of the river, a swiftly moving storm of air and water scouring trees and boulders from the valley walls
At this point, the floodwater having hit the lake edge, it was less traveling water than traveling force: that hump in the lake was all the terrible force of the incoming water shoving lake water up into a moving wave. With the wind at its back for good measure, that wave was coming right toward the dam, where irresistible force would meet man-made object, and if that wave was too high, it would overtop the crest. If an overflow started, floating debris, whole trees, would be sucked along toward the dam. If the force of the breaking wave failed to damage the crest, the hammering impact of debris would finish the job.
There wasn't leverage to use against a mile-wide wave. But this concrete and steel, at this dam, being sound, uncompromised --- it could hold, if no wave topped it. If it held, the debris would travel more slowly, and the floodgate wasn't at the crest of this hydroelectric dam, but low, where it wouldn't jam with floating debris.
The lake level being down, thanks to the engineers, ten feet of algae-blackened concrete showed behind the dam crest, marking where the water had stood before they took that precaution. That meant the lake could absorb ten feet of water, and ten feet in acre-feet, water spread out over all the surface of the lake and surrounding shore, was a very meaningful amount indeed. The lake in the valley above, behind the dam that had failed, hadn't been as deep nor as wide.
And with a lift of her spirits, Supergirl saw in that set of circumstances not quite a sure thing, but a fighting chance --- for a girl who wasn't an engineer, wasn't a mathematician, wasn't a scientist, but who knew enough to know that for every action there was an equal and opposite reaction.
For every displacement of matter by her body, the substance she displaced had to go somewhere; and if she hit something liquid very fast, the force would dissipate in a...
Hit the lake dead-on, and she'd generate a wave in all directions from her point of impact. But not to hit the water at all was a better idea... remembering how the direction of the wind had complicated the problems of the dam above.
She shot skyward like a rocket. Turned and dived for the rain-scarred waves with hands locked in front of her, accelerating as hard as she could.
Pulled up just short of the surface and rose, rose, rose; and accelerated all the way until she turned and came down again at a speed that sent her bow shock into the teeth of the wind and against the crest of that deadly oncoming ripple. She was tempted to watch what she thought would happen, but instead she repeated the plunge, hammering the water again and again and again with a fist of air until she saw the shock meet the wave, until water plumed white and high into the lightning-lit dark.
Then she hung in midair, amazed by the sight she'd wrought and watching to be sure the wave followed the line she thought it would.
A grin broke out on her face. The wave was continuing to break as if two opposing lines of surf had met belly to belly, a white line proliferating in symmetry to either hand.
It wasn't stopped, not yet. But against a monster made of water she'd thrown up a wall of like substance, a wall capable of absorbing the shock so that, checked of its momentum at its entry into the lake, the monster had to drop its weapons of sharp-edged debris. And now, like a mob with its forward motion blocked, what had been a moving hump of water was a moiling confusion of eddies impeding its own path.
Smallville High and high school physics were in her mind: the little frame with the swinging balls, click, click, click. There'd be a gouge on the lake floor as there'd been a plume in the air: the force had to go somewhere, and now it had gone. Now her circling hammer blows at the water could come at greater intervals, a slow rise to admire her handiwork, then a burst of downward speed that sent another wave proliferating down into the lakebed and into the path of the oncoming water. Thump! Whump! And thump again.
She kept up her assault on the flood coming in, until the distant shores of the lake shone white in the night as the waves kicked up and broke --- doing damage to fishing boats, perhaps. There was a village on the far shore that might have suffered flood damage to its waterfront as that wave broke. But without loss of life. The debris would drop where the fast-moving flood hit the still waters of the lake. Floating debris was a problem. But the dam would survive. Even the fish would.
And so would people in the towns below this one.
And so the girl from Krypton could at long last let go a sigh, hanging rain-drenched and still overheated above a living lake.