"That's right, Ms. Alverado, that's right... they're clear now."
More firemen were on the scene now, and Louis Lane, sitting on a slanted concrete slab in the bowels of the ruin that had been the underground parking garage of the Madison Metropole Hotel, drew back to catch his breath, grimy fingers clenched on his cell phone. He had a tenuous link to the parents of Gene Pratt, who were listening to LNN, and was acutely aware that Billy Anderson's parents were listening, too. The first boy was in the hands of firemen passing him toward the stairs in the flare of emergency lights. Gene had cried out when he came free, but he had come out with no damage but a broken leg.
And firemen were trying to see, now that Gene's body wasn't blocking their view, what Billy's situation was.
"They're getting Gene up toward the stairs now. He's awake and talking," Louis reported into his phone. Crying, actually, but he wasn't going to alarm parents whose nerves had been through enough already, or embarrass a boy who'd been brave throughout. And after the pain he'd been through, getting through the narrow opening, Gene was as brave as you could ask of a kid. "They've been very brave kids. They're lifting Gene now." He turned his head to follow the progress. "They're passing him from hand to hand toward the stairs..."
Jenny Olsen was slumped against him, her slight body shivering as she nestled under his arm, her once-blue Giants T-shirt now a uniform gray of wet concrete mud, as were her once-blue jeans. Where she'd been, she could barely fit herself in, in the tunnel of slabs and cars, and firemen had stripped off protective gear to be able to reach and widen the opening to get Gene out.
"Are you still in touch with the other boy?" the voice from LNN wanted to know.
"Yes." He kept his answers generally short. He and Jenny tried to stay out of the way of the firemen, but now they were signaling that they needed Jenny again. He knew how tired she was, but she got up when he raised his arm. "Jenny's going back in," he reported.
Where was Supergirl? He was tempted to ask LNN if they knew of Supergirl's current whereabouts. But he didn't want to give the parents any further cause for concern, raise any false hopes, in case the voice at the other end of the phone didn't know where the Girl of Steel was.
Jenny accepted the sealed light they took forward when they worked in there --- the light she'd established for them once before, and which they'd had to move back out of the hole in order to get Gene out.
Now they needed it put back, and none of them could get up to the hole.
"I'll try to see," she told the fireman who put it into her hand. He gave her a fire department mike and an earpiece, which she fitted in her ear.
They wanted Jenny to look for what she could see, not --- they'd said emphatically when they accepted her help, and Louis's, in the first place --- to move rock. The firemen had dug, with rods, with the fullest stretch of their fingers, scraping out compacted dust, while more concrete sifted down above them. They'd moved in some jacks and shored up the big slab over them: that had taken a long, careful effort. Maybe ten minutes ago they'd let Jenny take a rescue rope in as far as the hole.
She'd done it, because widening the tunnel to get a man in could endanger the boys. She stayed because no rescue personnel they could call on was smaller, no one else could fit the area they had to reach, and she and the firemen had long passed by the argument of a civilian in danger. Louis had stayed as part of a package deal. Or maybe it was his tenuous link to the boys' parents that had made his continued presence worthwhile. In any case, he wasn't going to leave without Jenny, and Jenny wasn't going to leave without the last boy.
She got down onto her knees, took their light and a rope as well as her bundled raincoat, and flattened down as she wormed her way to that narrow opening. She bunched up her coat for an armrest (the position she held when she was most of the way in was excruciating otherwise) and crawled forward along the rubble.
Nobody, not the firemen and not the EMTs, could hope to fit through that child-sized opening --- just one cold and soggy photographer, in a situation that, over the last hour, had become critical. And her faint hope was that, if Gene's small body had dragged any dirt with him on his way out, maybe she could get a look at the second boy when she delivered the light to the hole.
Gene, Mike, Andy --- and Billy --- the boys were all eight years old. They were in town for the weekend soccer clinic. They'd been the first team to check into the hotel --- and the scope of the disaster that might have occurred even two hours later, after noon, was horrifying. The hotel had been in its morning lull, yesterday's guests mostly gone or about town on business, the weekend clinic guests yet to come. Hundreds of kids of like age were scheduled to be here by now but, LNN had said, were being advised of the catastrophe and turned back, and kids were phoning home to anxious parents, giving them reassurance.
This vanload had come in maybe an hour early. One father --- also a coach --- had been upstairs at the reception desk with his kid. They'd made it out. Two staffers behind the desk hadn't been so lucky. But they didn't tell the kids down here how bad it was up there --- or tell them anything but good news about their teammates: they're safe, they'd say, and name names the trapped boys knew, keeping their spirits up. "They're cheering for you," she'd said to Gene when she'd delivered the rope. "We've got your parents on the phone. And your team --- your team wants you to beat this one. All right? You tie this on, and we'll get you out."
"Yeah," Gene had said, small fingers reaching for the rope. "Yeah."
Gene was safe now, relatively unharmed. If a broken leg could be considered relatively unharmed. But he was a beautiful kid. Parents were coming from New Jersey, probably breaking speed limits all the way. This kid, Billy, was the question mark. Gene had blocked their view of the situation. Gene had tried his best and couldn't move the rock he'd said had caught Billy. And Billy was in the dark, alone now. What could a kid think, alone, in this dreadful place, his friends all gone?
Jenny's body chilled fast on the concrete. You never knew where mud came from in places like this, but there was mud, maybe just waterlogged concrete dust, maybe stuff that had boiled up as dust when the building came down. She used her knees and feet to drive her to the opening, into which she shone the vital light. It lit the edges of concrete, the sagging web of rebar holding back tons of concrete overhead.
"Billy?" she called out.
"Jenny?" She heard a weak, frightened voice, faint, very faint, above the persistent sound of water that reminded them it was still raining outside. Water seeped down the walls from the riven roof and made a small lake Gene had reported, but they hadn't been able to see past him.
"Where are you?" She couldn't find him with the light.
From here it was maybe eight feet sloping down the rubble to the side, the light down there showing her bent metal, the side of a tire, and the edges of concrete slabs.
She was a photographer. She'd trained her eyes to see through the shadows and lines, her mind to interpret what was really there, to see what wasn't readily apparent.
And when she set the light through the hole onto the place where Gene had been lying and wriggled forward to get her head and one arm through, she could see to the left and down into the blackness. Her faint light shone on muddy water.
In that water, almost hidden by two huge slabs of concrete, a boy's pale face looked desperately up at her, flinching from the glare after the deep dark he'd been in for so long.
"Billy, can you crawl up to me?"
A despairing shake of Billy's head, that immediately dropped in weariness and weakness toward the water. She could see one shoulder above the surface. Billy's left side. His right, and the lower half of his body, were in water-drowned rubble, deeply shadowed by those two tilted slabs.
Came another thump. A sound of concrete sliding. It happened now and again. The ruin was settling. She hoped it wasn't going to settle on her and Billy.
"Ms. Olsen," said a voice in her earpiece, "get out of there. Get back. Now."
Billy's head lifted. His face grimaced in a fierce effort to pull his lower body up. It wasn't working. The kid was scared and hurting, she could see it.
More dust sifted down and made a pale film on the dirty water.
"Back off, back off," a live voice called through the opening. "Ms. Olsen, move back. We're going to have to move nonessential personnel out of here for safety's sake."
"Who's going to reach him?" she yelled into the mike. They were back at the "all civilians out" argument. She thought she and Louis had passed that point.
And she foresaw, after she was clear, a more desperate, disruptive attempt coming on the part of the firemen. After this they'd have no choice but to move the rock that was so precariously balanced above a pale, frightened kid with his face half in the water. She could see him so close, and the hole was wider than it had been.
The firemen couldn't get to this point. They couldn't see what she saw. She didn't have a camera to send back pictures. Words, only words. "Look, I think I can get past this opening. I can see Billy. I've got the rope. He'll fit going out if I fit going in, and then you don't have to move that rock! There's water down here. I don't know how fast it's coming in, but we haven't got a lot of time!"
She knew moving any rock was a point of controversy, and something they didn't want to do. It required meticulous planning and shoring up that took a lot of time --- time in which the whole ruin could collapse on the kid and them or the cold alone could kill him. She didn't want to raise and dash the kid's hopes. She didn't know whether in fact she could even get through the opening. She heard objections in her earpiece and felt a fireman's cautioning hand on her ankle, but that hand didn't pull her back: the man just behind her, the only one who could haul her back, gave her leg an encouraging pat, a tacit go-ahead, go now. Move! He was on her side, and maybe with that shifting of concrete a moment ago the whole effort was a heartbeat removed from the fire chief telling all of them to get out, leave it to a smaller crew. And more time. And delay the boy couldn't survive.
She went. She kicked and squirmed forward, advanced shoulder and left ribs through as she held and protected the lamp --- caver's maneuver. She'd learned a little of the art, in the way being a newspaper photographer mandated learning all sorts of odd things if she wanted to get the pictures. One-handed, she stuffed the coat back to the side of the opening, out of the way of her ribs on the other side, then used her ribcage like a snake's, used elbows, and once she had them free, used knees, for as long as she had them free. The light cotton Giants T-shirt she wore offered little friction to the rock, and she slid more and more deeply into the hole.
She got all the way in --- couldn't raise her head until she'd gotten further down the slope where Gene had lain facing the other direction. Then she propped the lantern in the rubble where it could throw light on the slope. In the cavity walled by fallen concrete and smashed cars she slithered down over the edges of rough concrete and jutting rebar in the rubble to the pool of water where Billy was.
"Ms. Olsen?" she heard from behind her.
"I'm there, I've reached him." She held out a hand. Billy gripped it with chilled fingers and anxious strength. "Billy, I can get a rope. Can you get it with both hands? Can you get the loop down over your shoulder?"
"I can't," the breathless, shaky answer came back. "I can't get my arm up."
"That's all right. Can I just take your hand and pull?"
"You can try."
She did try. It cost the kid pain. His upper body moved, stretched... but the lower body didn't. It hurt the kid. It hurt a lot. He dropped his head cheek-down in the rising water and then lifted it and looked her in the eyes with a dreadful, honest fear.
"I'm in a lot of trouble," he said, "Aren't I?"
"We'll get you out." She wasn't so sure of the promise, but she made it with everything she had. "There's ten firemen out there. There's police, there's ambulances." Everybody but Supergirl, she didn't say. "They're not going to go away until we get you out of here. All right?" Brisk and businesslike. Keep the kid cooperating and don't give him time to be afraid. Don't give herself time to be afraid. "Where are you stuck? What's holding you?"
"I don't know. I can't feel my feet."
She reported the situation back, the water, the trap the kid was in. "I think one leg's pinned to the knee, probably the other. He's lively, strong..." She didn't know if her fingers could feel a pulse if they asked for it, they'd want to know whether that leg was crushed, and without scaring Billy, she gave them information that might tell them she didn't think so. "He's in water up to his chin, kinda standing, kinda lying down. I'm going to reach down under the surface and see if I can feel what's holding him."
They waited. She daren't soak the mike. She took it and the earpiece off --- reached down along Billy's body, underwater, and found loose rubble, some of which she could move.
"Kind of a mess, isn't it?" Her face was inches from his, upside down to him. The water was cold and smelled foul. She tried to make a joke of their plight. "But I think I can clear some of it." She came up with a piece to prove it to the boy, one as big as she could lift.
"Yaay," Billy murmured, as enthusiastically as he could, but didn't lift his head.
It took a moment after that to pick up the microphone and earpiece and talk to the fire department about the situation.
"I'm trying to move my foot," Billy said when she'd relayed what information she had. "I still can't move."
"We'll get you out."
"Yeah." He was brave, he was steady as a kid could be who was about to drown in muddy water. They were getting a mask and air hose. That was the next step.
But the medic out there, who didn't fit through the hole, was talking to her now about hypothermia. He didn't need to. The water was cold. Bitter cold, and she was in it and soaked, herself. Billy's skin was like ice. That might kill the kid as surely as the rising water would.
She flinched as a pebble from overhead thunked down into the water.
She crawled back to the opening. The rope she'd brought in had dragged her raincoat onto the rubble slope, and she retrieved it. She slithered back to Billy, wrapped her raincoat into a tight bundle, and shoved it under Billy's head to keep it out of the water.
She started working, one arm braced on a rock above the water, one below it, feeling for anything she could move in the rubble, both fine grit and massive chunks, that had tumbled around him. Her fingers were already numb from the cold. They'd told her not to disturb rocks. But she had to. She brought up handfuls of gritty muck, fist-sized chunks, anything she could reach. The muck itself, compacted by the water, seemed set like concrete about the kid's leg.
Where's Supergirl? The question ran through Jenny's mind time and again. Why isn't she here yet? Supergirl could move the rubble, dig Billy out... get Jenny out of this cold water...
For a brief moment Jenny felt relief, knowing that Supergirl had at last arrived on the scene and that everything was going to be fine, just fine.
But no, this feminine voice was a new one, one she'd never heard before. From the opening. "Barb Whitmore, EMT. I don't know if I can make it in there. It's pretty tight."
Jenny looked back. There was a woman by the lantern. She had help, even if it wasn't Supergirl, she thought for a moment, and then saw the woman had made it in only as far as the waist and might not --- a woman's shape --- make it in any further.
"I'm trying to move rocks," Jenny said to the EMT. "He's wedged in by stuff. I'm trying not to pull anything that's a prop, but I don't have anyplace to put it, it's too tight in here." Almost like a fish swimming, she worked a small rock back past her body to a clear spot, a ledge, where she was setting rock and dumping muck.
"I can't make it through," Barb said in distress. And a male voice, after, "That slab there is holding this all up. It's not one we can mess with."
"She's moving the rock out," Barb said quietly to the man behind her. Then, to Jenny: "I'll carry it out if you get full down there." And then: "Ma'am, can you take a pulse rate?"
"I can't feel anything in my fingers. Billy? Billy! Stay awake, all right?"
The adrenaline had run out for him. Given the coat to rest his head on, he'd stopped struggling so hard, and he was as pale as wax, eyes shut, resting with his chin just touching the muddy water. But his eyelids fluttered when she spoke his name. "I'm here," he said faintly. "I'm not so cold, now."
They couldn't get a pump in. She heard them talking about that. The only exit for the water was the same way they had to get in, and it was a choice between the outtake hose and her in the way, and now Barb. She wasn't part of the consultation. She worked, and heard snatches of it. They could pump water, or they could have someone in here trying to get the kid out, and that was the choice they had to make.
"His condition's deteriorating," she heard Barb say, and she patted Billy's shoulder. "They're not talking about you. You're doing fine, just fine. Just hang on for me, all right? Don't let me down, Billy. I need you to tell me if you feel anything."
She found chunks of rock to pull, pea-sized, marble-sized, golf-ball-sized, anything she could get, and submerged her face and dug with both hands until her head felt as if it would explode. She used her midsection muscles to hold and lift, blew bubbles to keep water out of her nose as she felt the edges of the next big one, and wondered whether it would collapse if she pulled it out.
Barb couldn't get her hips through the hole. A junior photographer who hadn't been satisfied with the way her body wasn't filling out, who didn't scale ladders or leap tall buildings at a single bound... she fit in a place where, she began to realize, even Supergirl couldn't reach. She had, with her small hands and sense of what would give and what wouldn't, to move the rubble delicately enough to prevent its collapse on a kid whose injuries she began to fear were more than broken bones.
And she wanted this kid, she wanted him not to fade away, she wanted to live to get out of this hole and she wanted Billy to live. This kid had all his years in front of him. It wasn't fair. They were immortal, the odds were stacked for the young and the ones with a future... they couldn't die.
But they died, every day, on wedding days, on fifth birthdays, on school trips... not even Supergirl could save them all. It was Jenny's job to help report such facts. She couldn't ignore them entirely, not for herself or for this boy.
Move that rock. Keep talking to the kid, talking to Barb, to the firemen... it didn't matter. Piece by piece, risk by risk. The rock shifted, she got one piece out and more rolled down and a slab grated and shifted, freezing her heart.
It stopped. She kept moving pieces.
The water had been below Billy's chin as his face lay against the pillow she'd made him. Now her coat as well as the top of the slab he was lying on were underwater. It was getting deeper, not rapidly, but steadily. She had to prop his head higher, wedge a rock in or something.
Had to get him out of here. Couldn't feel anything in her hands. But fingers still closed, joints still worked. The cold numbed the pain. Barb talked to her, asked questions.
Jenny ducked her head and hauled, hard, on a rock wedged beside Billy's leg. It was that big rock, heavy, so heavy her fingers slipped on it, and she was going to drop it down in he water again and it would slosh other rocks out of place at the bottom and bring the whole underwater pile down that she'd just dug out, trapping Billy right back the way he'd been and worse. She applied English to lifting the rock, she shifted its center of balance as she lifted, and as first her head and shoulders and then the rock reached the surface of the water where it suddenly weighed far more, she twisted her body and shoved it for the shallows, shoved it up and up the slope of the tilted slab and crawled until she could get it aimed toward Barb. Didn't want to set it where she'd set the little stuff... little stuff if it got knocked back in could settle and grip like set concrete.
"Big one," Jenny said, shoving to keep it braced, and Barb, who'd worked herself around so everything but her hips came through: "I've got it. I've got it."
It was just one rock. All around them was rock, more rock. And she had to maneuver herself back to her vantage beside Billy, and reach down the slanted slab into the deep water where his legs were and try to move another, just as heavy.
"Come on, Billy, don't go to sleep on me."
Jenny couldn't feel what she was doing. But her numb hand met stone, closed around it, and hauled that out, raked it into reach of her left hand and that one set it aside in the shallows.
Another big one. Defeat trembled in her, welled up in her throat and stung her eyes and counseled quit; but that meant backing out, away from that sleeping face and letting the dark close around him.
That thought sent her hand questing down, down around that impossible rock, and then --- then pull, pull, pull! and don't think of having fingers: the rock is all, and it moves, and the arm feels the weight and draws it up and up along Billy's leg, in the water... and the surface will come, where it weighs more...
Turn the wrist, aim, and shove and no matter how it hurts, shove that rock aside to the shallows, make it go, keep it from falling back.
"Another big one, Barb. You ready? It's trying to roll back in. I'm gonna crawl up with it."
"I'm here." Barb came and went in the opening. But she was there now, as Jenny twisted to get the rock passed along her side and into Barb's reach.
Jenny squirmed back into position with Billy. And somehow the lantern near Barb came dislodged, skidded down past her numb elbow and went underwater. Its unblinking yellow eye moved beneath the brown film of water, and moved, and moved as it slid down past Billy, and dropped away, winking out in the dark below the water.
Unthinking, she grabbed Billy, perceiving suddenly that there was deep water and deep dark and they were both in blackness. She held him in her arms in the grip of nightmare, and she pulled.
And this time his body moved as she pulled.
"Jenny?" Barb's voice was concerned. "Get me a light, somebody, get me a light, the lantern's gone."
There was light. There was shadow and light, illusory shifting about, wild flaring as Barb moved the light someone gave her; but numb arms had their prize, weary body had its reward, a living boy, as Jenny pulled him up the slanted slab that had been his resting place and backed inch by aching inch toward freedom.
"Jenny?" she heard from Billy. He was so much weaker, but he held onto her, and she hurt him, she couldn't help it. He was trying not to cry out, but he was losing his breath, and she smoothed his hair with cold muddy hands and hugged him and dragged him back, herself hanging head down on the slope as she pulled him after.
"I got him!" Jenny cried out, not quite believing it herself. "I got him! I'm coming out!"
Hands grasped her feet, her calves, as she backed, gripped her lower legs and pulled, gently, caringly, providing her an easier exit than she would have had by herself. She had to slip her grip to Billy's arms to get him through the eye of the needle gap that was the gateway to the living world, but he came through easily, so small a boy, so wonderful at the moment she could first lift her head from that narrow space and pull him to her.
"Easy, easy," voices said --- one she thought was Barb's. They pried her cold, numb hands off his arms. They carefully lifted him away and laid him on a stretcher they'd brought down in hope of a rescue. They had the light. She glimpsed the glare of white sheet, of yellow inflatable splints, through a wall of dark, overcoated bodies. Light touched the firemen, the EMTs with their blue parkas.
There was no room there for her. She was ice cold. Her body felt as if she'd run ten miles.
There still was no sign of Supergirl. She must be helping out in another area of the disaster. Otherwise she would be here with Louis, wouldn't she?
Louis! Was he still here? Or had the emergency people finally gotten the civilian out? She looked around but couldn't find him. Maybe Supergirl had arrived after all, and whisked Louis away before he could tell her about Jenny. And the boy, Billy.
She did find her camera bag, sitting to one side amid the rubble. She walked toward it, stumbled, fell to her knees. She tried to crawl toward it but couldn't move, her strength completely spent.
Then Louis was indeed there, picking up the bag with one hand, wrapping the other arm around her waist and pulling her up to him, sharing his body heat. She could have stayed there like that forever, but it was not to be. "Parents," he whispered into her ear, and pressed his cell phone into her sore and aching hand.
Running on reflex more than anything else, she managed to bring it up to her face. "Hello?" she said automatically. "This is Jenny Olsen."
"Yes, Ms. Olsen! Carmen Alverado, LNN. What's happening?"
"We got him out," she said, and it was fantastic to her as she said it. "I got a rock free, and I lifted it up out of the water... There was water coming up, almost to his face. I put a rock where it braced his head and I pulled the rocks free under the water and we got him out. The EMTs're with him, and the fire department. Barb Whitmore's a fire department medic. She was passing the rocks back that I'd pass to her. We just couldn't get anybody into that crawl space..." She couldn't go on, feeling the walls closing in on her again.
Louis took his phone back. "This is Louis Lane again, Ms. Alverado. Jenny got Billy out... and he's awake. They're going to carry him up the slope..."
Jenny could see them starting to do that. They'd gotten an IV started and Barb Whitmore, covered in mud and coatless, was carrying that. They must have laid a lantern on the stretcher, because there was light coming from Billy's white sheets, like some painting of angels, a vignette in the dark.
It would have made a beautiful photograph. She started to reach for her camera bag, then realized that Louis still had it.
"We're coming out now," he was saying into his phone.
Jenny wasn't sure she could get up, but Louis pulled her up to her feet. Still holding her camera bag, he slung it over his own shoulder.
Then the phone was back against her ear. "Were you able to talk to Billy?" LNN wanted to know.
"During all of it. He'd do what I asked him..." Her voice shook. She trained her misting eyes just on the dark and the figures ahead of her as she climbed. Distance. Distance. Distance. She wasn't going to go teary eyed. "He's a brave kid."
She reached the level floor, realizing it was the departure of the light that had drawn her like a moth, too exhausted, too witless to realize what instinct drove her, only Louis's arm around her keeping her on her feet. But firemen were waiting for them at the steps, and one was behind her. One offered a hand under her elbow, on the side away from Louis, and she needed both of them to climb.
"Good job," the fireman said, and in one corner of her reeling mind she was immensely flattered by that, from these men, from these very brave men and women whose job it was to come into places like this --- routinely, on city pay; and on another level she felt intensely sorry for herself, sorry because she hadn't gotten a chance to go with Billy, and sorry because they'd pushed her aside, as they'd had to, for Billy's sake. The kid was hurt, and she didn't want to speculate how badly, but she'd had to pull and drag at him and put stress on his insides, and that scared her.
He couldn't die. Not now. Not after all this.
She climbed to the top of the stairs and, still leaning on Louis, walked out into the shattered foyer, in the glare of what she supposed were emergency lights.
The darkness beyond those lights shocked her. She remembered the lobby in daylight, and here was dark beyond blinding floodlights, and the red and blue strobe of emergency vehicles.
Human figures moved in silhouette around those lights, but the dusty, mud-streaked floor was clear except for the cables snaking across the broken glass and the dust.
Sawhorse barriers and yellow police tape were outside. Emergency lights on tripods. The group of firemen with Billy reached the street. Pavement under their feet glistened in the strobing red of a waiting ambulance, and the rear door opened, blazing with cleanliness and white light. They put Billy into that ambulance and Louis reported that fact on the cell phone as Jenny, leaving the warm shelter of his arm, tried to walk through the police barrier, following as close as she could get.
People surged toward her. Microphones and lights came into her face.
"Jenny Olsen!" one shouted at her. "Jenny Olsen!" the cry went out, and the microphones pressed closer in the hands of a living wall of reporters, cameras, and their attendant lights turning the whole world to black and white.
Somehow, in one corner of her mind, she'd known that Louis's reports had been going out over the air. But this... this overwhelmed her.
Then Louis was with her again, a protective arm around her, guiding her through the mob, telling the assembled mob something about a story in the Daily Planet...
Fortunately for her, her feet had less trouble following Louis's feet than her mind had following his words.
That was the emphatic answer from the old woman with the formidable cane. "Nyet, NYET, NYET!" That was her unchanging answer, faced with the prospect of going down the mountain: one firm word of the language they didn't have in common.
It was almost daylight now. The scope of the disaster was clearly evident in the abrupt ending of their hillside in a muddy gorge below, where the river that once had fed the high lake now carved a new channel through mud and devastation.
And if the villagers had thought of going down to the town beyond the hydroelectric dam, of being ferried down by air as Supergirl would have to carry them with the road washed out, now they began to waver, and to look at each other and then to shake their heads and dismiss any idea of deserting their mountainside, their woods. They stood in the dismal morning rain, having tied the little canvas they had to the trees to make shelters for the weakest and the smallest --- a mother with a newborn, and the littlest girl with the cat and kittens.
But Grandmother didn't count herself among the weakest, and certainly her opinion carried weight among the villagers. "Nyet," she said again and again. And something the young man translated into Russian as ours, our land. As the cane came down solidly on the earth.
The girl from Krypton could stop a wall of water and turn back a flood. But deal with an old farm woman who didn't --- she knew enough to muddle out the gist of the objection --- intend to leave her cow, her hillside, her woods, or her neighbors? No.
What was more, she knew the old woman. Oh, not so much as her name, but she knew her in her own mother Martha, and her father Jonathan, and the things they'd taught their adopted daughter by personal example. She understood the source of Grandmother's strength. She drew it out of the earth, out of the rocks of her mountain, a close-to-the-earth endurance that said that cattle got let out to pasture at sunup and milked at sunset and that not to do these simple things was a breach of faith with the sun and the moon and the very planet itself.
Not that her mother, her father, or the grandmother in immediate defiance of her would put it quite that way. But a young woman, who'd been born beyond the stars, and one who'd lived by those rhythms, and by means of them learned about the planet to which she'd come as a stranger, couldn't argue with Grandmother that their lives and their health would be equally well served by transporting them away from their livestock and their land. It wouldn't be served by that at all, to impoverish them and set them in the hands of well-meaning strangers. And all of them on this hillside knew it.
The three villages above this one, whose houses had not been threatened by the flood but whose fields and pastures surrounded a lake that no longer existed --- they knew it, Supergirl was well sure. Hard times were going to come here, hard times in which a local government cut loose from Moscow and already strapped for cash wasn't going to find it easy to rebuild the roads that had been completely wiped off the map, let alone deal with the ecological devastation and the distrust of the people.
It wasn't just that these people were cut off from the twenty-first century, they'd barely been in the twentieth. And there was no longer reliable water, no longer electricity, no longer a bridge to enable them to cross to the lower valley road.
But maybe of all the people who could have been stranded in this remote valley, these people had the greatest chance of recovering the land.
The horse nickered softly. The chickens probably slept in the dark, in their crates. The pigs --- she had no idea. But dumping these brave and steadfast people into the custody of agencies in town wasn't going to be the answer for them. Or for the land.
Getting their government to act and getting help and necessary supplies up here was a priority. And this wasn't the most politically stable area in the world. It was rife with ethnic troubles. Distrust? It was everywhere, on this side of the river, on the other, she was virtually certain.
"Tell them all," Supergirl said to the teenaged boy, Dimitri, who was her only interpreter, "I'm going to talk to the Red Cross. I'll get you tents. Food and water. Medicines. A few days. It will be a few days. Can you live here? Will you be safe here?"
"Da," the young man said, and turning to the villagers, he said something far more extensive than that, a torrent of words that brought hope to the weary, desperate faces, hope and enthusiastic nods of heads.
Supergirl didn't think it was an exact translation. She feared they expected miracles. But she'd do what she could.
Get to a phone. There weren't any here. The world had made itself a network of electronic nerves, but it operated most efficiently if one reached a nerve center. Tbilisi was on the other side of the mountains. Grozny --- in Chechnya, to the north --- was still reeling from war. She wasn't that fluent, and the lingering politics were a maze into which she was herself reluctant to deliver these people.
Istanbul, Geneva, Zurich, maybe, had an answer, and fewer language barriers. It depended on how fast she flew. "I'll be back," she said, and lifted into the air, faster and faster, until the rain was a river from which she rose into mist and then into the cold clear presence of a sun trying to chase away the stars.
But it wasn't a supergirl from Krypton trying to solve the problems of the village now, it was a farmgirl from Smallville... it was Claire, the adopted daughter of Jonathan and Marth Kent, thinking through her options, as a reporter charged with a responsibility to get the news out, and to get the news to those who most needed to know...
News to the organizations with the logistical capability to organize and move supply to a place so cut off and devastated: the Red Cross had already been working in the region since the earthquake. It already had, like an army, command and control set up and operating that would make communication far faster --- it would know the availability of scarce supplies and it would have an idea of priorities already in place. It would have maps, and would know it couldn't rely on the roads.
That was one thing. But without the news getting out to the general public, to the world at large, the best-run, most resourceful relief organization in the world couldn't help these people. The public had to know, had to have its conscience touched, had to respond with compassion and with funds, or there would be no supplies to deliver.
Geneva was a patch of lights on a dark but dawning landscape as she streaked over: the International Red Cross, based there, never slept.
But a reporter's instinct kept her flying... for a city with a newspaper read around the world, for a city with contacts Supergirl had used before to get information out. She knew London phone numbers, she knew various addresses; and since it was deeper night here, she even had a hope of finding the top end of that list of reporters at home, in bed --- asleep, but she'd be forgiven, she hoped.
She sped along the Thames with a rush that riffled the dark surface, until she reached not a quiet street but a thoroughfare and a public phone where a card, among the scant items she carried, gave her access. A few cabs prowled the streets of London, black, blunt and efficient.
A handful of pedestrians moved on these streets of powerful institutions: Neon glare was elsewhere, the traffic fading out in that brief sigh of breath between the neon beat of London nightlife and the gray hurry-and-bustle of a great world capital waking to a new day. She landed and held the cape gathered around her, tucked it close: in dim light, turned inside out to hide the big red S, to an uncritical glance, it could trick the eye that it was only a coat. And this morning she wanted no public notice.
"Hello?" came a sleepy British voice after half a dozen rings. "Hello?"
"Giles? This is Supergirl. I apologize for the hour. I've just come from the Caucasus. A dam's gone. A village airlifted out." At times she found herself talking in headlines. "Are you free to listen?"
There was a scrabble for something. The light thump perhaps of a lamp, perhaps a water glass. A newsman for the venerable Times was focusing his wits, brain coming on-line.
"Just a moment, Supergirl. Just a moment. I'm looking for a pen..."
There were reporters on the sidewalk outside her apartment building, as there had been outside the hospital. That, coming home, she hadn't expected.
How is he? Did you speak to the parents? Have you spoken to the doctors?
Louis Lane continued to run interference for Jenny Olsen, shielding her from the crush and fielding their questions. Billy Anderson was in Intensive Care at Metropolis General, and yes, and yes, and what did they think? It wasn't a complete victory. People had died. Sixty people had died, and three hundred kids would have been in that building in the next four hours, for the soccer clinic.
If it hadn't been for Louis's comforting presence, she never would have made it to the lobby.
Lobby security of her apartment hadn't let the news services into the building, and no one had been clever enough or hard-nosed enough to get past it. She was grateful for that. Her coat was left behind in the muck of that basement, but a kindly nurse had lent her a windbreaker, and she'd scrubbed in a hospital shower.
Of course, Louis didn't look all that much better, in his own borrowed clothes.
Jenny's shoes were maybe salvageable. The T-shirt was a total loss, just like the entire last season had been for the Giants. The jeans just might be resurrected and see further life as cutoffs.
She left Louis to deal with the reporters outside, crossed a deserted lobby, and took the elevator up to her apartment, half-expecting, half-dreading to find that somebody had gotten past the lobby after all and lay in wait for her.
The elevator let her out into a peaceful, otherwise deserted hallway. No reporters. No hassles. She was doing all right. The shoes still squished as she walked to her own safe door. Her hands were done up in enough Band-Aids to outfit a clinic. Band-Aids and yellow salve. They'd given her a tetanus shot at the hospital. A second shot of something else. They'd wanted to check her in for observation, but she'd wanted to go home, and Louis had somehow gotten a cab for the disreputable-looking pair.
She was fine right down to the door of her apartment when she tried to get her key out and get it into the lock, familiar act, an I'm home, I'm safe act.
Then she began to tremble like a leaf in a gale. The key hit to left and right and all around the keyhole.
She said a word her mother would never have approved of and used both hands to get the key in.
The door opened on home. Freeing herself from Louis's supporting arm, she went in.
She shut the door behind her and threw the deadbolt. Dug her small purse out of her camera bag, dropped both of them on the table beside the door.
Leroy was there to meet her. Leroy rubbed around her legs and she couldn't ignore him. He was fat and warm and fuzzy and solid as she grabbed him up and went to check the answering machine. He was also hungry. She nuzzled her cheek against his fur and listened to a Why-haven't-you-fed-me? purr as she punched the button to play her messages.
"Way to go, Olsen." That gruff voice belonged to Perry White. She was grateful he wasn't mad. "We're all proud of you."
Her mother's voice: "Jennifer, I was worried sick. Call me when you get in."
There was no way she was going to call her mother right now and release a spate of maternal anxieties. She had come to Metropolis partly to get away from a smothering mother. And now it was one in the morning and she was still shaking.
Still, Jenny managed to open a can and dump the contents into Leroy's bowl and then changed the water in the other one before seeing to her own needs.
The hospital shower and the disinfectant soap hadn't done anything but put a disinfectant scent in her nostrils she couldn't sleep with. And the clothes she'd had to put back on were a mess. And her knees and her hands... her poor, bandaged hands...
She started pulling off her T-shirt on her way to the bathroom.
The phone rang.
Perry? Louis? Billy's parents? She wondered and almost pounced on it.
But an instinct said not. She stood near it instead, shivering in the ambient temperature of the apartment and listened while the answering machine cut in, while a reporter from a tabloid press said he wanted to talk to her and offered her five hundred dollars if she'd pick up the phone.
She had a strong desire to grab the receiver and batter it in lieu of the caller. She just lifted it and set it down, cutting the connection.
She left her clothes on the floor and stepped into a hot, steamy shower, soap with no cloying scent, just --- clean. Just --- her, again.
And her eyes shut even while she was standing there.
She'd slip down the shower wall and go to sleep there, but she was already going to be stiff. She got out, delved into the medicine cabinet for a couple of Advil, and chased them with a glass of water.
Clean, clear water. A miracle. She stood watching crystal liquid swirl down the drain and thought how she'd never asked herself how water got that clean.
She splashed it up into her face, dried her Band-Aids with a towel and then stared at her hands as if she'd never seen the Band-Aids before.
She'd gotten a handful of boys to safety, and one of them, Billy Anderson, was hanging on against all odds.
The boy's parents had been grateful, had hugged her, kissed her, wept tears in the hallway where, in a borrowed robe and scrubbed with disinfectant, she'd finally been clean enough to come and meet them.
But by then, the surgeons had said they were satisfied and it was up to Billy.
"Then he'll make it," she'd said to the parents, and believed it. "Anything up to him, he'll do. He did, for me."
The father and mother had cried and agreed with her, which made her feel...
As if it was a good family, a good pair of people who had every right to have Billy --- which somehow dashed her hopes.
Wasn't that an odd thing to think? She'd had no right to that kid. She'd no use for an eight-year-old from New Jersey. A cat was more than enough to keep her hands full.
But it had... hurt... so much... when the professionals in that muddy garage had shoved her aside, and taken Billy, and she'd never had a chance to say good bye or good luck or anything.
Stupider yet, there was still a lump in throat, a feeling she'd won Billy, deserved Billy.
And then been robbed.
Maybe it was her mother's voice on her machine. Maybe that was why. Maybe that maternal instinct had been passed on in that recorded voice. But she could still feel the grip of small hands, the desperation, the trust the boy had placed in her, believing that she was the adult, she was the woman standing in for his mother, the one who'd pull him out somehow and save him from the unreasonable, unreasoning world.
For a moment back there in that dark, she would have fought tigers for that kid.
And almost --- silly thought --- she'd wanted to cry out and insist on her right to go with him to the hospital.
But then a hedge of microphones had stopped her and Louis had led her away. Somewhere, in the subbasement of her mind, practicality had said another EMT in that ambulance was a lot more use to the boy than an exhausted, muddy photographer.
She was glad to know he had good parents. But you'd kind of know, if they'd produced a kid that trusting and levelheaded, they were pretty special people.
He was probably the star of his soccer team. Or maybe not. He was a star in other ways.
Double deep breath.
She let one and the other breath go, lying in her safe bed, her eyes still seeing that dark place, that water, the boy's face in the light of that submerged lantern, while she fought the cold and the water for him.
Never had known that much time had passed. Longest and shortest day of her life.
Leroy accompanied her into the bedroom, curling up at his accustomed place at the foot of the bed.
At her own place, Jenny spiraled down, down, down to a satisfied, warm dark.
After seeing the reporters at the hospital, the stakeout in front of Jenny Olsen's apartment hadn't been too unexpected. She --- and the boy she'd worked so hard to rescue --- were news. Returning to his own apartment after seeing her home, Louis Lane was surprised to see a stakeout here as well. Not as many as lain in wait for Jenny, but present nonetheless.
Jenny and the boy were news --- he wasn't. He'd merely done his job, reporting the news. He'd drained the battery pack in his cell phone and nearly drained the spare as well doing it, but he'd just been doing his job.
Running the gauntlet and reaching the safety of his apartment, he remembered to put the phone into its cradle to recharge the batteries. Still at his desk, he had one more thing to do. Sitting down, he turned on his computer.
Last thing. Last, defining thing --- on any day.
They wouldn't expect him to turn anything in. But he would.
Had to. It was his story, and Louis Lane wasn't going to let have LNN have it to itself.
Proud of you, Perry had said, on the message on his machine. He could run a little more on that kind of octane. And on the reliance of those families, Billy's family, the others...
He started with what he knew:
A van pulled into the Madison Metropole Hotel garage...
Even as he wrote about the people who had been at the Madison, his mind kept returned to one particular person who apparently hadn't been there. Where had Supergirl been during all this? From what he'd gathered at the hospital, she hadn't made an appearance at all. So where was she?
He kept going, writing about Jenny and Billy, and about the firefighters and the EMTs, with fingers that hit wrong keys, and a mind that conjured that place, that smell, that fear...
He stored down to the comm directory and invoked the program that sent that particular file to the Planet first to disk and then to fax.
It shut itself down. Did everything but turn the computer off.
He sat staring at it. The keys blurred in front of his eyes. Wasn't sure he had the strength to move for the next three days.
Somehow, he did move, getting up and crossing the living room to the balcony door.
The door he'd gotten in the habit of leaving unlocked, ever since Supergirl had first flown him home. Two hundred feet above street level he had little fear of ordinary burglars, and the only person who could fly in easily he would welcome with open arms.
Especially now. He'd welcome her, ask her what she knew of what had happened at the Madison.
Ask her where she'd been.
There was nothing to be seen outside. He was too far away to see the site of the disaster, even if his apartment had faced the proper direction. He rested his forehead against the cool glass, hearing the rain continuing to spatter against the outside.
He was back inside the basement, water dripping down from above, fearing at any moment that the rest of the structure was going to collapse on top of him.
Definitely time to get to bed. Making sure that it was unlocked, he pushed himself away from the balcony, crossed the living room, and went into his bedroom.
He'd thought he'd fall asleep the minute his head hit the pillow. He'd feared desperately he wouldn't, and that he'd relive the hours in the basement.
It was neither. It was the questions that haunted him.
The why? The how of sixty dead.
Gas explosion was one theory that was going around the press corps, but he'd been a block away when it went, and in retrospect he wasn't sure he remembered a boom as much as a single, dull shock.
Collapse of the suspended roof was another theory. The Madison Hotel had been a controversial design. There'd been a lawsuit. Hadn't there? He couldn't remember.
He tried to remember, but it had been during a particularly turbulent time in his personal life. A time when he hadn't been much attention to anything outside of a very small circle.
And now in the hotel's first year of operation... it was its first year, wasn't it? It fell down.
Death. Grief. Devastation. Twenty-three injured lying in three hospitals, six children in Metropolis General, and Billy Anderson in Intensive Care. One fireman with serious injuries. An EMT cut to the bone by falling glass.
A terrible day for Metropolis, a terrible, terrible day, and no one yet knew why. His reporter's instincts wanted to lever him out of bed and send him searching fiercely after those answers, answers he was due right along with the innocent people caught in that collapsing rubble.
Rescue crews were still, by floodlights and using search dogs, combing through the debris. The hotel front desk and the computers had been shattered when the upper floors came down, and the day manager and three employees had died instantly. The Boston and Washington Madison Hotels, part of the worldwide chain, were assembling data they had off the computers to find out who might have been registered in the building. At the same time, the Junior Soccer Association was checking its rosters and communicating with schools across the region, hoping that at that hour no other teams had checked in unknown to the boys they'd rescued.
Complicating matters, the hotel restaurant had been open. Businesspeople regularly used the newly opened luxury hotel, with its airy, glass restaurant, for meetings, for breakfasts, for appointments. There was just no knowing who had been inside that building at that dreadful moment. There were eighty-three independent tragedies, eighty-three lives either snuffed out without warning or wrenched out of their families and into pain and grief through no fault of their own... either through simply going to work that ordinary morning or having reason to be, that critical moment, in that hotel.
And, there was still the question of the one person who hadn't been there. Where was Supergirl? Why hadn't she shown up to help with the rescue efforts?
The dawn in London gave rapid way to another twilight, stars shining in the sky ahead. Supergirl's many-time-zone day had now entered another dark, one of those days when even she had to remind herself that dawn traveled out of China toward the UK and the US while weather traveled toward... opposite to the traveling dawn, as this morning's deluge over Metropolis was a squall over the Atlantic and the downpour in the Caucasus was a mass of cloud headed for Iran, while the sun tagged after her on her westward route home.
Supergirl had gotten an accurate time from Giles in London and figured her approximate arrival time in Metropolis as about 3:00 A.M. She couldn't wear a watch... or she had tried, but nothing so far had survived. She bought cheap ones, and the one she'd tucked away in her departure this morning she'd bet was dead by now --- for the same reason as the map was soaked and had been losing its print lines along the folds when she'd used it in a London phone booth to tell Giles the locale and the precise metric details.
She trusted Giles would break the news in Europe to get the international relief organizations moving. He was a good journalist with a flair for expression, and he knew her and would rely on her details regarding third parties being precisely right. Both these reasons were why she'd specifically picked him out of all reporters in Europe to bounce out of bed at that hour in the morning.
But even at that hour Giles couldn't have made the Times's morning deadline. A newspaper didn't appear like morning dew, out of thin air: the presses had been rolling through the night and by that hour the trucks must have been loading, at the very time he was scribbling on his bedside table.
The Daily Planet, five hours later than London, wasn't through with that process yet. There was, if she judged it right, and she thought she did, a margin for Claire Kent to make deadline. The front-page stories of a paper were subject to change down to the last minute. News meant new. You wrote any newspaper story from the top down, facts first, then the explanatory detail in increasing degree of complexity --- because a story lost an unpredictable number of its endmost paragraphs at the hands of the editor, whose job it was to compose the page to fit however much space other stories hadn't taken. How much room was left depended on the competition for lead stories and on the page count; it depended on the room devoted to headlines at one end and advertising on the other; it depended on how the editor decided to arrange stories and it depended on what came flying over the wires as they went down to deadline.
There was a little leeway in the process, but if she was right about her arrival time, she didn't need to call and ask for that leeway. She had time to do a good job. She'd been thinking ever since London, in the high, untrafficked night, just how she wanted to handle the story. She had her front-end paragraphs and her lead sentence, and the rest... she had an idea how she wanted to cover it.
Her obligations beyond that could wait an hour. In exchange for benefits rendered, the US State Department didn't ask the girl from Krypton for proof of citizenship and other governments of the world generally didn't create a fuss about her crossing borders without passport and visas --- but when she had done it, and particularly when she'd done something that even marginally involved another government's citizens or property, the President of the United States preferred not to be surprised by a phone call asking him the details.
As a matter of courtesy, she'd taken time to call State from London and let them know, and probably tonight she should call the White House...
Oh... no... Louis.
Dinner. The Twelve Tables.
Her name... be it Claire Kent or Supergirl... was mud.
She came in on see-and-avoid, taking a lower altitude than she liked to use on a daytime approach, as the steel-and-glass towers of Metropolis showed on the horizon. Simple anxiety and desire to be there faster increased her speed; but she had to rein herself in and get her speed down below the sound barrier before she reached the harbor where she might affect ships. There still were some storm clouds hanging over the city, though it looked as if things were clearing up. The occasional car appeared to be scurrying for cover, fragile contents barely barricaded against the night.
Patience, patience, patience, she told herself as she came in, gathered up her belongings off the Planet Building roof, and covered the twenty-minute cab trip in ten seconds --- the trip that brought her to Louis's apartment.
Not to the front step, however.
His apartment was dark. And she didn't need to compound a bad evening by waking him out of a sound sleep --- which opening that balcony door might well do, even if it wasn't locked. He often did leave it unlocked; she had flown him home more than a few times.
Tonight there was no reason for it to be unlocked. His date for the evening had been with Claire Kent, not with Supergirl. There was no reason for him to expect Supergirl to come calling tonight.
She continued to hover above the balcony as the wind whipped her hair around her head and made her cape flutter. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled across the sky behind her as she wondered whether he'd gone to The Twelve Tables anyway, without her. Had he managed to get another date on such short notice? Jenny Olsen probably would have jumped at the opportunity.
She could have phoned from London. Not that she could have told him where she was, but...
It was too late for that now.
She was tempted to see whether he had left the balcony door unlocked. But no, there was no reason for Supergirl to wake him up and deliver Claire's apology for breaking their dinner engagement.
It was too late for that now, too.
Turning around and climbing higher into the dark sky, she flew on, to another apartment where the balcony door always stayed unlocked. Her own.
There she put on a pot of coffee, put her clothes on to wash --- Claire's clothes could go to the laundry, but the others couldn't.
She wanted to take a long bath, hot, with a couple of handfuls of her favorite scented bubble bath. Unfortunately, tonight she didn't have the time to spare for such indulgences.
She instead took a hot and fast shower, scrubbing off with strong hospital soap. Not as hot nor as long as she would have liked. It wasn't as if she could rig up her own personal water heater in her apartment, as she once had done back home in Smallville. Twice, actually. She'd nearly burned the house down with the first one in the process of discovering the damaged wiring that had led the original owners to discard it.
Having learned her lesson, she'd bought her next water heater instead of salvaging one from the landfill.
Emerging from the shower and drying off, she put on a heavy, worn old bathrobe, poured herself a cup of coffee, and flipped on the power switch to the computer that sat in a clutter of reference books on the bedroom table.
She took the clothes out of the washer and put them in the dryer and sat down, sipping her coffee and watching the computer boot.
It was 3:15 in the morning. She was, she thought with a heavy sigh, tired. She did get tired. She did like to sleep in a given twenty-four hours, and although she was as immune to caffeine as to poisons, the fact that her mind associated the caffeine intake with mornings was a little boost to her flagging spirits. She told her body, however, that there wasn't going to be any sleep, even if it wanted it.
And that was like calling on her body to rise off the ground or to expect a couple hundred tons of weight or to await a flurry of bullets: it just had to know the rules. It answered, as it always had, faithfully.
It wasn't particularly happy about the news, all the same, and said to the back of her mind that it would much prefer the soft mattress and nice comforting sheets, thank you, and that it had earned them. But the conscious mind answered that there was the story to write, and it wasn't going to get any decent sleep until it had that done.
Fingers flew. Claire Kent, unobserved, could type far faster than Claire Kent in the heart of the Planet offices, but the chip on the motherboard had limits, and so did the word processing program. So, most frustrating of all, did the keyboard. She had keyboard macros for everything she remotely found useful, and those bypassed keyboard speed, but she had consciously to hold herself to a rate the machine could stand --- better than typewriters that took a certain time for the mechanical action of the keys, far better than the office computer (the Planet provided good equipment but didn't expect superspeed from its reporters). This laptop was the most extravagant item Claire Kent owned, but at times it still frustrated her.
She didn't see much difference between this pricey little machine and the tough older laptop she lugged about in public view, but intellectually she knew that difference was there --- and it would help her now. She had one hour to write the best piece she could, to be sure the word got out while it was still news. She wrote her opening:
Supergirl raced to the rescue as a quake-damaged dam threatened a city of 20,000.
She had her subtopics:
Higher up, cut off by the earthquake, a village slumbered on the river's edge, below the dam, unaware of the fatal combination of wind direction and a crack below the floodgate...
Engineers downriver had opened the floodgates and lowered the level of the water, which afforded a chance, Supergirl reported...
The woman everyone called Grandmother walked with a cane but refused to despair over the loss of so much of their labor and their worldly goods...
Supergirl reports her last standing above the floodwaters that had swept everything away...
"There was nothing more I could do without the relief agencies," Supergirl said, and made a personal appeal for international assistance to the area. "The Red Cross and other agencies are in urgent need of donations to meet the demand for medicines and emergency shelter after a year of famine and floods."
She arranged paragraphs, pushed, pulled, trimmed, and refined, with one eye on the clock at the bottom of the screen. At 3:55 she made the modem connection to the Planet, loaded her file to electronic storage and fax, and keyed Send.
Then she took a final sip of cold coffee, heard that the clothes dryer had shut off, and asked herself whether she wanted to get dressed and go across town to make that phone call to the President.
Supergirl never, ever phoned from Claire Kent's apartment.
White House staff would receive her call at this or any other hour. But by now, warned by her call from London, the US Department of State would have been in contact with various embassies in the affected area, and the President would get the news from Supergirl in London with his morning briefing. There wasn't, at this hour, much constructive she could do in the United States.
She'd have to go back to the mountainous area and help with the relief supplies and help get that road open. She'd told State that she'd check back with them before she went. She wanted to help where she could, including taking requested aerial photographs for the engineers so educated eyes could figure out whether the pilings of the ruined bridge had survived and in what condition; and the engineers might also need specific items to tell them the condition of the lower dams.
For the upper one... they were not, from everything she knew, going to rebuild. The uppermost, the one that truly never should have been built in the first place, was by no means able to stand indefinitely against the quakes that rolled through the valley. She had a general policy against interfering in large government projects, and she wasn't a construction engineer nor wished to become one. But if, to recover that region from the policies of the past, given the political history of the area, she might volunteer to do further demolitions; if they wanted to reconsider the whole notion of those dams, she was willing.
Definitely a case in which Supergirl would be far happier if the government used its collective common sense and let the engineers and the geologists, not political considerations, make the decisions.
But right now Claire Kent was going to bed and enjoy the... what?
Good Lord! Two hours of sleep? Two and a half hours. She could move a little faster about the apartment and still clear the door by six-thirty.
She could get thirty minutes more sleep if she flew to work. But, no, that was pushing it.
Not when she had to come up with something better than the flu to account for her ducking out yesterday.
You saved the best ones for when the excuses were hardest to come by.
An interview with Supergirl, that was the center of it.
Had to be.
Claire didn't live so far from the Planet... not as far as Louis. And as if Mother Nature was out to prove the forecasters wrong, it was a bright morning, mostly clearly, with hardly a sign of yesterday's storm. She often walked, and even though it meant losing a little more sleep, it gave her time to get her thoughts in order. She took her usual route, timed to a fare-thee-well on a good morning, and this was. Move on schedule in the city, and even the traffic on the street moved with you, the lights went on WALK with fair convenience. You saw the same vendors, the same panhandlers. You saw the same cars at the same lights as every morning, as if you were reliving the same day over and over again. You knew them by the dents, you knew them by the license plates, especially the creative ones.
And you dodged the familiar obstacles, the construction on Fourth, and the endless repairs at the manhole half a block away. She'd given way to temptation and looked into that one with a vision ordinary passersby didn't have, and she still didn't know what they were doing down there. A lifelong avocation, it seemed to be. They'd been at it since last spring and might have replaced half the phone cable in the city for all she could tell.
There was, on this route, the chance to use the phone --- Claire would make her call to the White House --- by stopping in at the 1930s vintage Kendrick Building, where there was a little-used public phone that faced the front doors.
She breezed in through the revolving walnut doors and headed for the phone, glancing at the little coffee shop where she could get a blueberry muffin on the way out in lieu of a real breakfast. She then glanced at the newsstand in heady anticipation of the Planet's morning edition and her story somewhere on the front page, if not running as the lead.
The headlines of every paper on the stand screamed pain in black type. City In Mourning: Deaths May Top 60 and Madison Search Continues vied with the Planet's Survivors Pulled From Hotel and, in smaller type: Louis Lane And Jenny Olsen: "We Couldn't Leave Them"
Her heart did an extra beat. She calmly put down the price of two papers, picked up the Planet and the New York Times, and did a speedread of the Planet article, in utter shock at what she was reading, all thoughts of blueberries and muffins completely banished from her mind.
The Madison Metropole Hotel, just down the street... gone? The Madison, where her parents had stayed only a month ago? Louis and Jenny... pulling kids out of the wreckage? Had Louis been in it? She was appalled. The hotel was just around the corner and down the street. One part of her wanted to ask the newsstand attendant what he'd heard yesterday and the other part just wanted to see what her memory told her ought to be a normal, reassuringly normal street.
She didn't wait to read the Times. She went outside, to the corner, and looked toward the Planet, where the whole street was cordoned off, where earthmoving equipment and firemen and police were working inside the yellow police tape that stopped ordinary citizens.
It was unreal even to her, who'd just seen a dam dissolve and a village swept away. But it was true. It was very unhappily true. And Louis had been in the middle of it. She'd skimmed his article enough to know he'd filed it last night, and he'd been well enough to write it. But...
The danger he'd been in appalled her. And Jenny. In the parking garage. Under tons of shifting rubble. Electric wires. She knew scenes like that, and it scared her just thinking about it. Those people over there, with the dogs... those were search dogs. They were still looking for survivors in the rubble. Hoping to find survivors and not... corpses.
She knew the alleys hereabouts as well as she knew the streets and ducked into one to do a blinding-fast change and launch into a flight so short it was a dive.
She landed just inside the police barrier. She didn't talk to the police or firemen in the first few seconds. Letting her arms hang helplessly at her sides, she looked at the pile of concrete and tangled pipe and wire and shattered glass; she looked at that ravaged lobby and down into the water-filled ruin of crushed cars and collapsed rebar, fearful there of what she might find.
And didn't. Then she felt she could draw breath.
The police captain and the fire chief had come quietly up to her and were waiting for answers.
"I don't see anyone," she said, turning toward them. "I don't hear anyone."
"Are you sure?" the fire chief asked her.
Supergirl knew that it was life-and-death answer. "Let me go closer," she said. "Give me a little time. Pull everyone back, twenty feet or so."
She didn't like to waltz in, displace brave and tired workers, and make easy pronouncements --- but these weren't people to let anything stand between potential survivors being found by any means that would work, and they had worked with her before. She felt their hopes settle on her, and she became aware of reporters near the fence. One of them was a stakeout from the Planet, and she made up her own headlines for the article: Supergirl Finally Arrives, and Rescuers Exhausted --- far more painful headlines to her than any they'd actually print. She hadn't been here, hadn't known what was going on in her own city. In London she'd been giving out news, not getting it from Giles. She'd been calling the Red Cross headquarters about the dam collapse and the villagers, not asking them about her own city.
The rescuers with search dogs drew back and called out for quiet as she took her own feet off the ground, hovering into the cavernous ruin in a silence the more eerie because the ordinary sounds of Metropolitan traffic were a block removed. The sounds of pedestrians were absent. Wind fluttered the yellow warning tape, and the smell of earth and damp and stone predominated the scents on the breeze.
She listened. She sharpened the senses she ordinarily dulled to live with ordinary people and drifted near the standing pillars, looking carefully at the surfaces.
She discovered... nothing.
Half the building was still standing. It was the north end that had collapsed, taking with it the glassed-in terraces, the ballrooms, the observation dome that had been all glass, a beautiful place --- when she'd last seen it. She looked at the standing walls, and ventured into the basement and the shattered garage, moving with delicate slowness so as not to cause further collapse or disturb the air that held the scent of concrete and damp, looking deeply into the walls, seeking the evidence of what had happened.
She went down until she found standing water. There she gave a whistle that she was sorry for in consideration of the dogs upstairs, but the sounds that came back to her, echoing off the ruin, gave her an accurate picture in her mind of what the bottom was, and what lay beyond her line of sight.
Her vision, linked with that auditory sense in some fashion in her brain, gave her an image none of the police or firemen's equipment could provide them. She even passed a quick scan over the microstructure of the concrete and the walls on the lowest level of the collapse --- she'd had the unhappy job of going into many a chancy building and she'd developed a routine that gained information on every front they'd want to know, information the investigators as well as the rescuers could use.
She went out then and met the searchers on the street. "No one's in there," she said, "dead or alive, to the best I can detect."
The two dogs with the searchers couldn't understand, they'd go in over broken glass and sharp concrete and search and search, faithful to their job and in such hope --- magnificent dogs, who wanted to keep trying. She let them smell her hands, and she petted them in consolation.
"Good for that," a fireman said, and talked to his dog and told it --- its name was Brandy --- that it was a good dog, and good Brandy, and that they were going to go home.
"I only wish I'd been here," Supergirl said. "What happened?"
"That's still up for grabs," another fireman said. "We just don't know. The investigators are already taking pieces to the lab."
"No explosion traces," Supergirl said, "not that I saw." But two tired firemen didn't constitute the official agency to receive her report to her city, and she had, herself, a lot of answers to give to Metropolis and to others, questions that the firemen hadn't yet asked, that she urgently needed to deliver elsewhere. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you for being here."
"Our job," one said. It was what the good people always said. Supergirl rose out of the site and high, high above the scar the event had put on Metropolis, out of their view before she veered off and dived to the alley she'd last entered as Claire Kent.
In a moment more, Claire Kent, with her two papers folded neatly under her arm, walked out, solemnly passed the taped-off disaster site, and took the necessary detour down the block and around to the Planet's main entrance.
She'd begun to ask herself, in the enormity of what she'd seen, what on Earth she could say to Perry that was going to cover this one.
"Morning, Ms. Kent." Charles the security guard was at his post, reassuringly ordinary.
"Morning," she echoed, and drew a calming breath. "Did Mr. White come by?"
"Nope. He sent down for breakfast. He didn't leave last night."
Not completely surprising, Claire thought as she got into the elevator. She'd taken that split second in the alley to scan the paper, to the limit air-resistant paper would let itself be handled with any speed, and by what she'd gathered out of the several pages she'd passed an eye over, the Madison Hotel, a new building, had gone down without warning at 10:49 in the morning. The theories flying around were either a bomb... or a collapse in the parking garage, then the function rooms above that area, where nine people had been injured and seventeen killed, most at a business meeting. In the lobby a father and son had escaped due to the front desk holding up a piece of the ceiling, and others behind the desk had died. The restaurant and the terrace walk accounted for thirty-two dead.
At that hour, some few people had been in their rooms, cleaning staff had been at work all over the hotel, and the vanguard of the State Junior Soccer Clinic had been arriving at the hotel to set up their registration. Hence the boys trapped in the garage. Their coach had been up by the desk while they were getting equipment from the car. He was one of the ones that desk had protected. His son, another member of the team, had been the other.
And Louis, meanwhile, with Jenny...
She still had to figure whether for some reason they'd been in the building or had run down the street; but he'd had the cell phone in his pocket, and a backup battery.
And for hours, hours in the ensuing chaos, he'd kept issuing his reports via LNN. By what she'd skimmed in other articles, not just the city but the whole nation, the whole English-speaking world, had been glued to those faint transmissions from the garage of the Madison Hotel. Louis had kept talking, assuring the parents and a listening nation that two of the kids were alive, but trapped, and that rescue personnel were communicating with them.
In so much destruction, he'd held out good news, and the nation had latched onto it and refused to let go so long as he kept reporting.
And Jenny, little Jenny, going in where bigger men and women couldn't go, digging out the boys...
Which led to those kids' rescue, one fairly unharmed, the second boy, whose plight had seemed so hopeless, whose rescue --- by Jenny --- the world called a miracle.
She wished she'd been there. But to have been there instead of where she'd been --- she couldn't wish that. Thousands would have died if that second dam had failed. That these were her neighbors in her own hometown --- it hurt. And she had the same feeling anyone in the city must have this morning, reading the account, a question why such a thing had happened and a determination to know it wouldn't happen again.
She wanted to know why. It was her job to know. She wanted to walk out of the elevator and down the short corridor and see Louis at his desk, unscathed, and her city unchanged, the newsroom full of the usual tired jokes.
But Louis wasn't there this morning. His computer wasn't turned on. His coat wasn't on the coat tree. Her London Fog was there, from... was it only yesterday morning that things had changed so much in this city?
"Kent." It was Perry's distinctive voice with the inevitable question hanging just behind that summons. Perry was not pleased, and if what he believed were true, she wouldn't blame him.
He didn't say a thing, just went to his office, and she tagged behind and shut the door.
Perry took the desk, looked up at her with that under-the-brows stare he had when he was struggling not to blow. "Where were you, Kent?"
She hated this. She hated lying. And had to use her best and rarest: "I was on the line. I forgot to unhook the modem."
"Forgot to unhook the modem. I called your pager at least four times last night. Myerson called. I'm sure Lane called."
"How are they? Louis, I mean, and..."
"You are out of touch."
"Are they all right?"
"All right enough to write the best story of his life."
"I read it. On the way to work." She didn't mention she'd taken the time and walked. "It is good."
"I had to cut yours," Perry said. "Hadn't any choice. Metropolis is the news, it's the news clear to London and Paris. Moscow. Kuwait and Tokyo. Supergirl off fixing dams and you're interviewing her. Try answering your pager, Kent, just for starters."
"Battery went down," she said. Second big-time excuse, a fabric of lies grown thinner and thinner. She hated interviews like this, and she didn't like her absence and Supergirl's brought up in the same sentence. "I'll get on it, Mr. White. I'm sorry, is all I can say. Is Louis coming in today? Jenny?"
"Soon as they wake up. They've got an excuse. A lot of us haven't been to bed yet, Kent. We've got every crackpot and every wannabe extremist organization in the city calling in!" He picked up a fistful of While You Were Outs and shoved them across the desk. "The Committee for the Liberation of Whatever and all their cousins are ringing our phones off the wall claiming they bombed the hotel and it's to protest gene-spliced tomatoes or the trade talks with Japan, I don't know. At least ninety-nine point nine percent of them are liars. Maybe all of them. Find out which."
"Right." She took the fistful of notes and shut his door behind her. Claire already knew what she thought, the way she knew what Supergirl had concluded. And meanwhile she had people on a hillside freezing to death and the President of the United States waiting for an explanation.
The President of the United States and Ron Myerson.
"Where were you?" Ron came up to her with a worried look. "What happened?"
"It's a long story." She crossed the newsroom with Ron close behind and picked her coat from the lot on the pegs.
"Have you talked to Louis?" Ron wanted to know.
"Not yet. If he's speaking to me." She put on the coat and started to stuff the messages into her pocket, then thought better of her sometimes windblown pockets as a security storage. She headed for her desk.
She sorted rapidly through the messages in case one was significant and tucked the least likely in her pocket, the communiqué from the People's Committee on something-or-another. She put the rest in the desk drawer. In that pocketed, highly expendable message she had her excuse for leaving. Going to follow a lead, the pocketing of that message indicated silently to another newsroom eye. And leaving seemed a good idea right now. Ron wasn't the only one anxious to ask her questions or fill her in at great length --- the filling-in part, she would have been vitally interested in, on a quieter day. "So I've read," she said to Ron's enthusiasm. "I didn't get the news till I woke up. An hour late and a dollar short. Were Louis and Jenny all right?"
"They were a mess. Mud and everything. But they were great."
"If Louis gets in this morning, tell him..." She saw Letitia Frenk cruising in, long dress swirling about her ankles, coiffure immaculate, likewise intent on questions, Claire was certain. If there was one place not to entertain a touchy secret, it was a nest of reporters. "I've got to check out this phone call. I'll be maybe an hour... I'll be back," she said to Ron. "Got to make a phone call. If Louis comes in --- tell him --- Never mind. I'll talk to him when I see him."
She didn't want to use the phone. She wanted to see him, face to face. She wanted to hold him in her arms, assure herself that he was safe.
Grabbing the purse she'd left behind yesterday, she ducked out of the newsroom, detesting the deception that was the never-ending rule of city crises. Claire Kent was unreliable. Claire Kent was always elsewhere when the avalanche came down. Claire Kent always had an excuse.
Claire Kent was who she was, Martha and Jonathan Kent's daughter. Claire Kent was her real self --- and she didn't like the impression she had to give, not now, not back all the way to her days at Smallville High. Here was a catastrophe to her city, and she was ducking out again, this time with the whole world watching.
Claire Kent used the elevator, not the stairwell, and hailed a cab in front of the Planet Building.
She'd not seen, among her other concerns, whether her story on the Caucasus, the one that she'd labored over last night, had been picked up by the wire services, or whether Perry had killed it altogether. Not that her pride was riding on it. But the welfare of a village and a region was. The public concern that motivated politicians was riding on that information getting out to the hearts of people around the world, and it might impact the willingness of the State Department to commit resources to budge official positions in that area of the globe. That newly oil-rich area of the world: that might incline certain people in the State Department to take interest, because the oil supply to the industrial world affected trade balances, jobs, political alignments that oil-poor nations made in order to secure and maintain the flow of oil --- but explaining to the American people how a situation in the remove mountains impacted the Caspian shore, which most Americans knew less about than they needed to know in the first place --- that took some deeper understanding of the situation: the conflicts that had wracked the region reached the American people through photojournalism as a simple case of ethnicities run amuck, a question Americans did understand and latched onto as the truth. But it was far more complex than that.
She'd have liked to write an article on that complex region. She'd find a way to write that article. She'd talk Perry into it. That was her distracted thought as the cab wove through brisk midmorning traffic.
"It's worse with the street blocked off, ya know?" The cabby was one of the chatty ones, and Claire muttered an agreement that traffic was bad, thinking to herself of the calls she had to make.
She had no idea whether Giles's article had made the Times or whether the disaster in America had bumped his account as well to the second, third, or fourth page.
The International Red Cross was on the site. Relief agencies were there, geared up for earthquake, but nothing was getting up the road to her stranded village --- and the rest of the villages above that vanished lake, what with the blockage and then the bridge going out. She couldn't but think of the night her villagers were spending, clinging to what little they had. For a moment it was dark, and raining, and people were waving good bye to her with hope on their faces as she took off into the sky...
And then the cabby was swearing at a pedestrian who'd almost caused an accident, and the world was sunlight and the yellow nose of the cab and a man with a boom box shouting at the cabby.
"Idiot!" The cabby turned to his passenger for support. "Would ya look at this guy? Would ya look at him? No sense, no sense at all!"
"Not a way to long life," Claire said, and fished in her purse for funds as they rounded the corner to quieter traffic. She would just about bet that, given the hour, Louis was going to outflank her in another cab, going in to work while she was pulling up at the curbside of his apartment. But concern wouldn't let her wait, hoping he got there, hoping he was all right. She had to see for herself. And now his building was in sight, past the cabby's shoulder.
So, to her dismay, was a clutch of reporters, TV news, cameramen, photographers, all looking for any sign of emergence from the building. She'd have known the mannerisms if she hadn't seen the gear and if she hadn't known the names of several of them. The cabby was slowing down.
"Drive past," she ordered the cabby. "Let me out around the corner."
"So what's goin' on here, d'ya think?" The cabby was one of life's curious minds. "Them's reporters. Is that what they are? Somebody kill themselves or somethin'?"
Fine. A cabby with an inquiring curiosity, just what she didn't need; and Louis's doorstep under observation. That they were still milling about indicated that he might still be in.
"I don't know," she said. Depend on it, the cabby was well aware he'd picked her up at the Planet and that those were reporters on a story. And depend on it, unless the cabby got a fare away from here, and maybe even then, he would circle the block to rubberneck after what might be going on.
Exactly what she didn't want the man to be doing. She gave the man an extra five. "Listen. Do me a favor. Go around the block, pull up to the curb, and ask them what's going on. Just keep them busy."
"You a reporter?"
"Yes, I am." She got out and made a fast retreat toward the alley, which the man could weave into her other behavior, but at least now the man had a framework on which to hang his suspicions: just another reporter trying to outfox the rest. She would bet the man (fear of adventure never drew a man to be a Metropolitan cabby) would do just what she'd asked.
And common sense and prudence ought to tell her to take off down the alley and to the next building and find a phone so she could reach Louis that way. But the concern she had --- and the thought that Louis might need a rescue --- sent her to a quick change to a form that no one would be surprised to spot a number of floors in the air, if they chanced to spot her at all. But she doubted if the reporters on the front walk had gotten past building security to scout out the premises and discover which was Louis's apartment. As it happened, his apartment faced the other direction, and as long as the cabby kept them there talking, they wouldn't spot her at his balcony.
She whisked to the balcony in question and hoped that he had left the door unlocked.
He had. She opened it. Wind wafted the curtains as she whisked through --- scanned the empty breakfast nook --- and floated through to Louis's bedroom, her feet not quite touching the floor.
He was asleep. Safe. His face was scratched and his hands... his poor hands... were cut and bruised and abraded, as ordinary hands would be, that had wrestled with concrete and steel. She was reassured by his even breathing, his profile on the pillow, and her fear settled to a desire just to hold him, to hold him a long time. The hands looked so painful, and she wished she could take every bruise, every cut, onto her own hands --- which she couldn't.
He'd have tried to call Claire. The cursed pager, of course, had been with Claire's clothes, her new cell phone likewise, and Supergirl couldn't have used them anyway, because it was a giveaway and it could lead to her secret identity. Still, he would have hoped that Claire would demonstrate her uncanny knack of contacting Supergirl when no one else could.
And Claire hadn't, because Claire hadn't been in Metropolis.
She wanted to gather him up right then and hold him and tell him how sorry she was for yesterday and last night and everything, and how very much she loved him. But she didn't know, sometimes, how exhausted a body like his could be, or what he did need. He'd earned the right to sleep in today, that was certain, and if he had nightmares of that awful wreckage, she didn't want to bring them back into what looked now like tranquil sleep.
She leaned close, very close. She passed a hand just above his cheek. Her skin could feel the warmth of his skin, even at that range. It was almost a touch. She could imagine the touch. She imagined the brush of her lips against his brow --- and didn't, quite, touch. But the scent of his skin was there, the scent that was him, to her, that calmed her fears and touched all her hopes.
Maybe, in his sleep and in his dreams he felt her presence. He stirred and started to roll over. She drew back and stood there a moment, in case she had, after all, wakened her. Then she'd forego everything, presidents and schedules, for at least long enough to listen to him and hold him and be absolutely sure in her heart that he was all right.
It said something for his depth of exhaustion that he settled again and didn't wake.
Turning, she went back through the living room and left, careful not to shut the curtains in the door.