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The Girl From Krypton

Water Chapter 3

A weight landed on her stomach. It might have been concrete. Rocks. The entire building, the entire world, might have caved in on her. She was conscious of having just flailed a hand above the covers, but it made no difference to The Weight, which walked calmly forward onto her bruised chest and patted her cheek with a furry paw.

The Weight wanted breakfast. He wanted breakfast now.

His human was sleeping past breakfast? Clearly something was wrong that wanted intervention.

Pat. Pat-pat.

No response.

Raise the ante. The Weight put a tentative foot on the pillow and licked her chin.

Jenny Olsen waved an arm not quite aimed at dumping Leroy onto the floor. It was unlucky to do that. Cat owners for the last half-century had been wary of starting the day by dumping the cat off. But it had started out as such a good dream. Supergirl had been there. She'd felt the presence. She'd been so sure she was safe and all the world was right... for just an instant...

Then she'd been back in the parking garage, in the water and the terrible sounds and sights of the place. And the rocks had started to grow, getting bigger and heavier.

Tail raised high, Leroy tramped back across the covers. Undaunted.

"All right," Jenny said. "All right. Why can't you make your own breakfast?" She stuck a foot out, and it hurt. "I'm the one hurting. Why can't you make me breakfast today?"

Her knee felt raw and scarcely healed. Her arms hurt. Her ribs hurt. Careful assessment proved everything hurt and no little of it was skinned, not badly, just abraded, possibly infected from that awful muddy water...

Hadn't the doctors said that? That there'd probably been sewage in it? And shot her full of every antibiotic known to man, she supposed. But she moved. The body lived. She'd --- gotten those kids out. She'd talked to the reporters. Louis had. They'd gotten the story out. They'd gotten the kids out. She was entitled to sleep into daylight. Perry would forgive that --- grump and gripe, sure, but he'd forgive it.

Receiving forgiveness from the editor-in-chief was one thing. Receiving forgiveness from a higher form of life that was a cat was something else. This was going to require real effort on her part. Leroy reminded her of that fact by licking her cheek.

Deadlines, deadlines. In that particular respect, Leroy and the editor-in-chief were remarkably similar.

Finally getting to her feet, she walked out of the bedroom, and into the kitchen. She picked up a can of generic cat food and then put it back down.

Not today.

Selecting another can and opening it, she replayed scooping out mud while she scooped out the Fancy Feast and dumped it into Leroy's bowl.

She stood there with an empty can in her red-knuckled and very sore hand, watching Leroy eat, remembering the dark, and the water. Why weren't you down there in that hole digging?

Shaking her head in an attempt to banish the memory, she rinsed the can and put it in the bin. She changed the water in Leroy's other bowl. She washed her fingers, trying not to hurt her hands.

She looked like death when she got the view in the bathroom mirror, and if she was going to have to answer questions --- and likely be photographed instead of being behind the camera --- she wanted at least not to have her hair standing on end.

And she wanted to follow this story to the finish. Sure, she wasn't a reporter like Louis or Claire. Still, this was her story. She wanted to know what had happened to the people she'd left last night. She wanted to know how things stood with Billy Anderson and his family, and with Gene Pratt, and with the other people they'd pulled out of the rubble.

She phoned the hospital, as Jenny Olsen from the Daily Planet. She didn't ask to disturb the parents with a phone call, but they put her through to the Andersons all the same; and she couldn't hang up on them.

"This is Jenny Olsen," she began, and didn't get as far as, With the Planet. Tom Anderson said, immediately, "They're saying they might have to go in again. Another surgery. They're not sure."

"Tell Billy hang on," she said, shaken. She was seeing that place again. That frail hand holding on to hers. Billy, holding back the pain when she pulled on him. And there wasn't a thing she could do now, but find out the truth. "I'm on my way to work, Mr. Anderson. I'll come by there as soon as I can get clear. Tell Billy I called. Tell him --- tell him I want him to get back to his team."

They'd talked about that, in the basement, she and Billy, in the intervals of her fishing after rocks. About soccer. About the other kids. She knew a lot of the other names, Andy and Ted and Tonio. She felt for Gene, an immensely brave little boy. But she'd fought the fight of her life for Billy Anderson, and they couldn't be telling her now that he wasn't going to make it. That wasn't fair. It hit her right in the stomach. "I'll check back," she promised Billy's father, and put the receiver back in the cradle, trying to recover her sense of perspective. Professional distance. She had a job to do.

She wasn't just going to work this morning. She was going to work. She went back into the bathroom and, rummaging through her meager makeup kit, eventually put on the paint that hid the circles under her eyes and the scrapes that were going to be a nasty scab on her cheek and chin, or at least made them seem no worse than the freckles she'd had when younger, and brushed and blew the hair until it showed signs of surrender.

She was down the elevator in fifteen more minutes. She normally took the subway to work but this morning, understandably not wanting to face the crush of people, not wanting to go underground, she intended to walk down to the avenue where cabs existed in fair frequency.

She hadn't expected the barrage of cameras and microphones outside the glass doors. Her stomach turned upon seeing them. She was tempted to turn right around and return to her apartment.

She couldn't do that. She had braved the dangers in the basement, refusing to let the threat of collapse keep her from rescuing Billy. She wasn't going to let a bunch of reporters keep her from going to work.

There was nothing for it but to shove that door open and brave the barrage. Still, her stomach turned over when they rushed toward her.

"On my way to work," she said, and to shouted questions, "I'm fine. Fine. Scratches. Just scratches. I wasn't in the building when it went." Then, curiosity got the better of her. She fired a question back at them. "Have they fixed responsibility for it?"

They hadn't. The stakeouts didn't know, at least. She couldn't tell them, but die-hards unfettered by cameras pursued her to the avenue with notebooks and pens.

It got her a cab, at least. A driver was curious, and wanted to know what the hubbub was and caught her signal.

Then, with her safely in the cab and the reporters in the rearview mirror, "Hey, I seen you on television. You're..."

"Jenny Olsen. Yes. On my way to work."

It was a running questionnaire on the way to the Planet. The cabby wanted to know every detail.

Down to the point where he remarked, "Looks like a bunch of 'em waiting for you," as they drew near the Planet.

She groaned and slumped back into the seat. They were going to get her coming and going.




"Possibly." To any passerby it was Claire Kent sitting in the antique phone booth in the Stratford Hotel, a couple of blocks from the Planet. But it wasn't Claire's clear soprano but rather Supergirl's deeper contralto going over the line to the Secretary of State. She liked the venue. It had the old-fashioned green-vinyl padded seats and the comforting feeling of wood. And it had an aisle remote from the reception desk where no one in particular came. One would need hearing nearly as sharp as her own in order to eavesdrop on her conversations.

That was a good thing, if your calling list included the White House, the International Red Cross, the FBI, and the State Department in a tightly laced sequence.

The FBI lab was glad to get her observations on the Madison Metropole Hotel: it had samples, but there was a decided advantage to a moving, all-angles glance seamlessly interfaced with a mind and a memory. She was unfortunately widely experienced in what a bomb did to still-standing walls. And her visual observation was further backed by a sense of smell that could, if she consciously cleared the overload that ordinarily blocked her senses, identify a number of byproducts from a recent explosion.

It was easy to say something existed --- if it was clear to your microscope. It took a little longer to swear you hadn't missed something. Supergirl and the lab had come to the same conclusion --- negative on the bomb theory --- and that was helpful.

What wasn't helpful was what she learned from Geneva. Warehoused goods immediately adjacent to the quake zone were depleted; the International Red Cross and other relief agencies had moved in supplies two weeks ago to handle critical human needs following one disaster, and that had run certain other areas into need. A couple of hundred homeless villagers might find lodgings in adjacent villages, but she understood their reluctance to give up their land, and you couldn't go shoving these refugees about in disregard of their property and their local traditions.

It was a region already badly done by, a patchwork of borders and ethnic divisions so chaotic she'd had to ask the State Department and they'd had to consult their maps in detail even to know what country she'd been in.

The old regime had dumped wastes, built factories, used resources, and moved populations with no regard to local needs or ecological concerns.

This generation reaped the harvest of bad decisions. And Grandmother, who'd see all of it in her lifetime, her wishes mattered, too --- or should. Someone had to do these people the courtesy of asking them what they thought, and she'd left them with the impression that Supergirl, personally, was going to help them.

The girl from Krypton wasn't going to abandon them.

That meant she had to go back. And she had to get the supplies they needed. The earthquake and the larger towns downriver might have depleted all the local delivery facilities, but there were other sources. Switzerland, while not the closest staging area, was a place where she knew names of individuals who knew how to move and expedite goods, and they had the equipment she needed.

It was also politically neutral, and they could talk to the governments involved. The State Department was looking into it.

Supergirl was their eyes, too. She'd seen the situation. The area needed that bridge restored, in order for those people to get their meager goods to market. Between the quake damage, poverty in the region, and the fact that the flood might have taken out the bridge pilings, there was the likelihood of a long delay in repairing that bridge and the road that went to it.

She wasn't an engineer. She reminded them of that; but she knew what she saw, and felt secure in reporting it.

She also knew the basics of brute force engineering, enough to know that what she set in place in an emergency was going to stand up at least for the short term, overbuilt in such a way she could trust it would stand: but if there was a chance to do it better she wanted to have the advantage of that advice, and maybe some equipment and some help. She hadn't had a good look at the bridge pilings, those support columns that held up the surface of the iron bridge. In this case the pilings were probably of reinforced concrete. She hadn't stopped to look. They were set into rock below the water --- and she knew the structure of the bridge was ripped out. But if those pilings had held fast in the rock and not been scoured out or knocked out, if even a certain number had survived the flood, putting a new deck across the bridge was a quick job. Replacing pilings was a difficult, time-consuming job. Replacing the whole structure with a suspension bridge, the kind that hung from the walls of the valley across the river --- well, she wouldn't borrow trouble. If they were all lucky enough, the pilings had survived and they'd have the deck replaced in days, not months.

Meanwhile the State Department and the UN were going to get in contact with the Russian government --- the area had turned out to be Russian and not Georgian, Ossetian, or Chechen. In one sense that was good: there were well-established diplomatic channels, individuals who knew each others' credentials and could walk critical information through the right official doors. In one sense it was bad: Moscow was a long way from the Caucasus and a government's natural, even responsible, tendency to want their own observers on the scene could slow decisions, because someone on the site didn't have the authority to move.

She had to trust, however, that the Russians would track down the records on the dams and the bridge, find and send the information to the Russian Embassy in Washington, who would send it to the Russian Consulate in Metropolis, where she could pick it up along with the information from the Red Cross and various other involved agencies. The State Department was experienced at doing exactly this sort of thing, and it was a profound relief to lay the details and her observations into the hands of Norman Williamson, whom she knew from personal experience let nothing slip between the cracks.

"Possibly," she said when he asked whether she would be going back immediately. "Depending on what you can find for me," was her conclusion to the matter. "Thank you. Thank you very much."

She wasn't going to get any sleep. She could see that coming.

She hung up the phone and walked past the gift shop, out through the elegantly appointed marble and paneled lobby, and onto the gray, busy street.

The Planet wasn't a long walk. And rival news services were still prominent on its doorstep, reporters and cameramen jostling one another for position. "Hey, Claire!" one shouted. Eddie, from the Star. "Claire, just a second!"

"Sorry," she said. "I'm on a deadline."

"On what?" the shout pursued her, and another reporter tried to delay her, but she made the doors and inside, where Charles and the receptionist held the lobby.

"Mr. Lane made it in," Charles advised her. "Mr. White's been asking did I see you leave and I said you went down by the site. I think he's looking for you."

"That's fine," she said. "Thanks." As she escaped into the elevator. Charles was an asset, a definite asset. A one-man message system. And Louis had arrived at work.

She was thinking about the bridge replacement: that was a surety. And she was thinking about what to do with the dam. The dam, Norman Williamson had said, had put her villagers off their original pasturages, and if she had a recommendation to voice among the engineers and the diplomats, that particular lakebed might go back to being a meadow. It hadn't the pollution problems the lower river had, where industry had poured an unthinkable soup into the system. The high valley lakebed might still be viable as farmland...

But it was going to need a little help. It was a popular misconception that silt was automatically fertile, for one thing --- Supergirl needed no research to know farmland --- and while the edges of the lakebed were silt that might have a little value, when the water had moved in a rip down that valley, it would have taken with it all the useful topsoil washed down near the dam and left sterile deep earth and muddy gullies. Erosion would follow immediately, with all that barren mudflat, and the spring rains and snowmelt.

A series of shallow terraces, on the other hand, would hold the runoff. And hold in place the topsoil that might wash down from the slopes.

Terraces would fill with runoff and topsoil and a small series of ponds and riprap dams to get the water down to the newly expanded lower lake...

She could do that. Yes! She could do that.

She could turn that land back to productive use.

And prevent the ruining of the lower lake and the dam with silt.

She exited the elevator into the hall, hoping as she came into the offices to find Louis at his desk.

He wasn't.

"Kent!"

Perry was, however, in his office. It didn't take superhearing to detect the exasperation in that shout as she passed his door. She stopped and put her head into the editorial office, where he sat keeping a hole in the next edition open, very probably, for the two ace reporters in his arsenal, against that information-seeking horde outside on the sidewalk. Reporters who owed him their attention and the decent exercise of their wits. The phone was blinking red, and he had the receiver in his hand, with someone on hold.

Claire went to the desk, not willing to speak aloud in case that button wasn't pushed, and wrote three significant words on a memo pad: not a bomb.

Perry mouthed the words in implied question.

Claire nodded a deep affirmative and solemnly held up ten fingers. Ten minutes. And headed out to her desk as Perry recalled whoever it was on the line and got back to them.

Settling at her desk, she hit the red rocker switch that brought her computer up, dropped into her chair, and had her first line in mind before the program was up.

Fingers flew. Not too fast. Not showily fast.

Supergirl arrived this morning from overseas and visited the Madison Hotel disaster site to assist authorities with the search and rescue. After a thorough examination of the rubble of the hotel, she advised rescue crews that she detected no additional casualties or trapped survivors at any level of the structure. In an interview with this Planet reporter near the site she expressed regret for her absence at the moment of crisis and said she had been engaged in another emergency in a remote mountainous area at the time. She praised the rescue workers and called them inspiring in their courage. "They aren't invulnerable," she said of the rescuers, "and they're working in areas of extreme danger. I can't say enough about the effort I see here."

Supergirl also stated that she doubted a bomb was involved. "A bomb leaves chemical and debris traces I don't see here," she said, and declared her intention to report her observations to the FBI, which is currently investigating the case. She said regarding the phone calls from various organizations claiming responsibility, "Responsibility isn't in their comprehension. When the FBI labs have a statement, I'll listen to their conclusion. Right now the focus has to be on the innocent people who've been caught in this."

To the question of what ordinary citizens could do, Supergirl stated, "Support the people involved in this tragedy. Give your time and your money and your goodwill. The citizens of Metropolis have a deep love for this city, and they won't let this event overwhelm their spirit or concern for those caught in this disaster. I couldn't be here. Thousands were. I'm very, very grateful to them for their courage and their refusal to give up anyone to this terrible disaster."

An FBI spokesman, contacted by phone, said, "We aren't ready to make a statement at this time," and said further that the FBI could neither confirm nor deny that they had received information from various sources, but that there would be a news conference at 10 A.M. Eastern Time to issue a progress report on the investigation.

She glanced over it. She ordered Save and she ordered Print, and she accessed Perry's desk and ordered Send.

But Perry's Electronic Desk being what it was, and the phone calls continuing to light up the available lines in, competing for his attention, she took the printout and crossed toward the physical office.

Louis Lane was indeed in. Louis, in a tailored gray suit, came down the hall by the conference rooms with Jenny Olsen, in her usual blue jeans and today a green Jets T-shirt that clashed with her red hair, trying to keep up with him, a camera bag slung over a shoulder despite the bandaged hands.

In that simple fact Claire had a clear notion of where Louis had been, reporters at the Planet's doors notwithstanding. His adrenaline was running high, she could see that in the pace he set and in every line of his athletic body.

Until he spotted her and stopped in his tracks. She stood there with her story in hand, and he stood there with Jenny and her cameras behind him, and the whole office seemed to be at a simultaneous dead stop, right down to the gathering at the water cooler.

"Louis," she said, with everything she wanted to say to him bottled up and impossible in front of an audience. "Louis? I've got to turn this in, and then I've got to talk to you."

He gave her one of those looks that said she had better talk, and talk volumes. And she reached Perry's door, and Perry's desk, with the intention of laying the paper within reach.

"Give it here," Perry said, and as she started for the door, "Wait a minute! I want you."

She wanted to talk with Louis. But she drew a quiet breath and waited while Perry scanned the page.

And looked happier. "Exclusive?" he asked.

"Exclusive. No question." Her brain shifted from Louis to the muddy disaster site. And the rescuers. "I tried to word it so we don't end up backing any theories. She said she doesn't know for a hundred percent certain, and she doesn't want to miss something and create some controversy about their results. I couldn't get a statement out of the FBI lab..." That was the truth: she'd called once as Supergirl and once, last of her calls, as a reporter looking for information. "But Supergirl said that she's reasonably sure, and she was able to check areas for damage that they haven't reached yet. She says it looks a lot like the floors just folded downward, the way the layers are lying, but that's not something she wants quoted because she's not sure enough. I'm staying in contact with her."

"I need photos. I need photos of her standing there."

"I can't get that. I was there. She happened by."

Louis and Jenny had turned up at the doorway, and Jenny edged in cautiously. "I've got some shots of the site right now. Mr. Lane's got an interview with the fire chief."

"It's not written yet," Louis said, over Jenny's head.

"Ten column inches," Perry said. "Photos. Photos, boys and girls. Great shades of Elvis, we're in motion here, we're going to rock and roll! Rock and roll! LNN and WGBS and that whole alphabet soup on the front sidewalk are all going to have to read the Planet's front page to know what's going on in this city!" He was on his feet, waving his cigar, and made a flourish of his hand toward the personally autographed portrait of Elvis that dominated the wall. "Go for it, that's what the King would say! If it wasn't those crazies on the phone, then something brought that building down, and it's a good thing there's TV cameras all over our sidewalk. The news is here, the news is what we do here, people, and if those guys on our doorstep want to know the latest, by golly, they'll read it in the Planet! We've got a twenty-five percent increase in our print run, and we're selling off the stands. The world wants to know, the world's got a right to know, and we're the ones to tell 'em, boys and girls! We're the eyes and ears of the good citizens of this city, we're the conscience of the community, and we're wanting to know what happened down there that took the lives of sixty of our citizens. Supergirl says it wasn't a bomb. So? Well? What was it? Let's not chase the FBI news conference tomorrow morning. Let's have a solid lead here, Lane and Kent! Let's have pictures, Olsen! Let's not be running to play catch-up! Seize the moment! Carpe diem, people. It's Now or Never! Go out there and bring me something ahead of tomorrow!"

"Yes, Chief," Jenny said faintly, and dived out before the cigar could clear Perry's lips.

"We're on it," Louis said fervently, and was out the door almost as fast. Claire followed a little more sedately and still managed to catch a heel in the doorway. She stumbled, flung out an arm for balance, and found herself in Louis's arms.

Looked up into his eyes. Heard his heart pumping, the blood rushing through his veins. Smelled his aftershave without needing recourse to her supersenses. Lost her train of thought and her memory of the last twenty-four hours, wondering how he had managed to shave with all the scratches and cuts on his face.

"Lane!" Perry said, and appeared in the doorway, commanding all attention. "Brilliant job yesterday. Outstanding. A real outstanding job, wasn't it, Kent?"

"It was," Claire said, still gazing into Louis's eyes. And was acutely aware that she hadn't been there.

"It's all right, you doing interviews for other organizations. I'm not complaining. They say a good newspaperman never becomes the news, but you're a credit, Lane, you're a real credit to this newspaper, and you've got good sense, real good head on your shoulders. The Planet stands behind you. A hundred and ten percent!"

"Thank you," Louis said faintly, pulling Claire upright. "But Jenny..."

"Both of you! You give it the old try. Good for you both, coming to work today. I knew you'd come. Couldn't stay home. That's the old spirit, that's what I like in people! Don't you think so, Kent?"

"No question," Claire said, as Louis released her to stand on her own.

"That's the spirit!" Perry said, and went after a ringing phone.

Claire let go her breath. Louis let his go. The spell had been broken by Perry's interruption. Wordlessly, they moved to their desks, facing each other.

"That was incredible, Louis," Ron stopped by to say. "That was really incredible, what you and Jenny did."

"Somebody had to," Louis said.

She should have been there. It should have been Supergirl down there in the depths of the wreckage, not Louis. And Jenny.

Louis, the oh so fragile, oh so vulnerable Louis.

No, not so fragile. Not so vulnerable.

She'd left Metropolis to an unguessed, unsuspected crisis, and he'd dived into the breach and gotten himself and others out.

Maybe --- unprecedented thought --- she had a partner. Maybe that was what they had to iron out between them. She had to go back to Russia and there was Louis Lane to handle things here in Metropolis, in the newsroom, in the lives of people she couldn't help.

Maybe --- aside from being desperately, deeply in love with the man --- that was what it was like to have a partner.

Amazing thought. A thought which --- from a childhood as unique, alone, and in a personal sense, lonely --- she'd never dared imagine for herself. She'd always expected she'd be alone and more so as she set Smallville in her past. That at least the essence of what she was would always be solitary.

She could never be intimate with a man, she'd come to accept that, but there was more to a relationship than mere physical intimacy. Wasn't there?

And to discover the contrary after all these years? To have not a partner on the news scene, Claire's personal mainstay --- but to have someone fielding some of the catches, at least figuratively speaking, that Supergirl couldn't make? He'd know all the details, he'd get all the phone calls, he'd see things and do them if he could. She knew Louis. She should have seen it coming.

To have a partner so --- fragile --- so vulnerable to the chance and risk of the life she led?

Her heart was no longer protected. She cared. She loved the man. What did she do?

She somehow didn't think her parents back in Smallville had the easy solution to this one.

It was at least a minute before Louis started asking Claire questions. Tough questions.

Questions she couldn't answer truthfully.

And Claire hated herself for it.

But maybe, just maybe, there would come a time when she could tell him the truth. The whole truth.




"Photos are right here," Jenny Olsen said, brandishing a digital disk and computer printout in a bandaged hand. "Shall I take them into the Chief?"

"I'm nearly there," Louis Lane said, and didn't look up from the keyboard. His fingers ached, and he'd typed nouns and verbs and adjectives with a lot of abbreviations. He wondered how Jenny was able to operate her cameras, after what she'd been through. Must be the resiliency of youth...

Perry White was five minutes from deadline on a noontime extra based on Claire's story. The presses were going to roll.

And nothing that wasn't in the computer was going to make it onto that page. The electronic age with a vengeance. And Perry was right: other news services saw Louis Lane's work with the Planet as a threat, the Planet's old-fashioned reportage and solid writing as a standard they had to meet and beat --- including finding out what angles the Planet was working on. They'd had one reporter from the downstairs pack try to get into the newsroom disguised as a janitor. Another had attempted to deliver some flowers to Jenny.

Far worse, the Planet's stakeout at Met General said some tabloid reporters had tried to get into the patients' rooms. There were limits.

There were real ethical limits. Barging into injured kids' rooms. Jenny's kid was lying there in doubt of his life, and some lowlife was trying to get onto the upper floors.

"Two minutes!" Perry stuck his head out to say.

... the site will belong to the investigators, now. The rescuers are packing up to go. The mayor said, of the volunteers from so many surrounding cities, "They're the finest. There's nothing else to say."

He typed that last almost without corrections. Signed off on it.

"I've got it," Claire said from her desk, rattling a last few keys. She'd been picking up his writing and cleaning it up, following him by barely more than a paragraph or two. He suspected she was atoning in a small way for her absence yesterday, an absence she had explained to him was due to her interview with Supergirl. Pity the local disaster had pushed the far-off one almost completely out of the news.

That interview, while Supergirl hadn't been at the Madison, but it didn't fully explain why Claire had been gone all day, nor why she hadn't known about the Madison disaster until this morning.

Still, whatever else he might think about her, she was good at the details --- if you could just keep her at her desk.

The printer whined into action, and Claire reached up to close the disk drive. "That's good, Louis. That's real good."

Not A Bomb: Supergirl Visits Site, and Search Ending were the two leads for the extra run, with photos, striking, heart-wrenching photographs, of a little girl at the police barriers.

Jenny was hovering, despite her injuries, playing her usual rôle as messenger pigeon.

But not this time. Clutching the disk and the printout, Claire was off like a shot toward Perry's office, leaving behind the photographer who'd taken probably the outstanding image of her young career on the very day after the fight of her life.

Jenny felt as she'd been shot and wanted to find a nice quiet couch in the restroom and lie down. Despite her brave façade, there wasn't a bone in her body that didn't ache. As she collapsed into the chair Claire had just vacated, all she could see in her mind was that basement. That rising water. Billy's hand.

Her head sank down onto her arms and her eyes closed.

"That's great!" Perry popped out of his office, and meant the praise. "But we've got an evening edition to run in three hours, people. I want something on that front page. I know I'm asking the sun and the moon, but can you find me something worth that page? I need that page, people!"

The blood moved just a degree faster. The heart beat just a little harder. The brain knew where there was a story that needed telling.

"I can get it for you," Jenny said, opening her eyes and raising her head from her arms, "if Louis or Claire'll come with me."

"Honey." Perry came over and patted her shoulder with Southern chivalry she --- and Claire --- had learned wasn't in the least patronizing. "Olsen... Jenny, honey, you've done enough."

"I'm going over to the hospital. I want a writeup on Gene Pratt. And Billy." She glanced at the two reporters. "I'll write it up myself if I have to."

"I'll do it," Louis volunteered. "I was there, too."

Jenny nodded her thanks and then included Claire in her gaze. "Do either of you guys have any idea how to find Supergirl? It'd mean a lot to those kids, if she could just show up over at Met General. Can you ask her to get over there? It'd be real nice if she did that."

"I'll give it a try," Claire said. "I think I've got her schedule."

She'd be there. Supergirl would be there. Of that, there was no doubt in Claire's mind.

And Jenny would be there, and Louis would be with her, and he would write a good story. One that would make sure those kids and those twenty-four injured and the sixty dead stayed part of the picture no matter what the focus tried to be. That was important.




Jenny Olsen had, unintentionally, made her excuse for her --- or at least given her the beginning of one. Claire Kent punched in a phone number that she happened to know wouldn't be answered --- it was a voice mail service Supergirl did in fact use, but she accessed the service, not the accumulated messages, and left another, in the hearing of Ron Myerson, who was hovering near her desk.

"I know a place to look," she muttered to whoever might be interested, and shut down her computer and left her desk, remembering this time to take her raincoat.

Louis Lane and Jenny Olsen had already left for the hospital. Claire took the elevator down to the lobby and took a cab in the opposite direction, to an address on Seventeenth Street.

It was an office building. It wasn't her destination. The immediate objective was a grim and fairly unused alley with a stream of questionable water running down the asphalted-over cobbles --- her resorts were rarely to scenic and pristine places.

Seconds later Supergirl rose straight out of that concrete pit and up the blind façades of two buildings without adjacent windows (another preference for her launch sites) and up, up, into a sunlit perspective of a busy city. She did a roll and redirection and dived, fairly leisurely, toward Met General, not wishing to get there too quickly, to anticipate Louis and Jenny.

Then there was Met General, shining white and clean below. She flew over its parking garage, circled back above the elegant Japanese garden out front that matched the one behind glass that existed in its heart.

There was the cluster of reporter stakeouts, too, camped around the canopied entry --- stakeouts that gave a desultory glance to the arriving cab and then scrambled for their feet, their cameras, their target beneath the canopy.

Lois and Jenny, probably. They were going to have to run that gauntlet, and it wasn't going to be reporter to reporter --- what do you know, what are you following, hey, I saw your piece, that was good...

She could give them an easier time getting in by putting in her own appearance. And she did, landing on the sidewalk with a fair amount of speed and a last-nanosecond will to stop on the concrete and not a few inches below it.

sgdien2

Hands on her hips, she stood there watching the tide of lenses and microphones roll toward her --- and seeing, beyond it, Louis and Jenny passing the doors. The photographer got in, the guards doing nothing to stop her. And she got Louis in with her.

The questions that came at Supergirl were blunt as only reporters could make them: Where were you? How do you feel seeing this? What are you going to say to those people?

And she answered them, in patient terms. "I was on the other side of the world. The former Soviet Union. A dam failed." They didn't care about the danger to thousands halfway around the world. It was this place they wanted to know about. Their bosses had sent them here to get the story that was happening in Metropolis and they couldn't do otherwise. "I didn't find out about this until this morning." Cameras were clicking, whirring, snapping. Cameramen and photographers were jockeying for the right shot, and microphone booms swung around her head and over her by less than inches. It was hard to keep one's thoughts in a row. "I'm immensely impressed with the fire and police personnel. And with the citizen response. I'm doing what I can now, assisting with the investigation."

Shouted questions: Do you hope to learn anything here? Was it a bomb?

When she was Supergirl she wasn't the Planet's employee. She'd worked that out in her conscience. And the Planet presses were already rolling, so the print journalists couldn't catch up. But the television cameras could get the word out immediately if she talked to these people.

What should she do? Take Perry's story and broadcast it? Lie to these people? At times she was between a rock and a hard place.

"I'm here to talk to the survivors," she said, and left, leaving the bomb question hanging, selectively deaf to it. She turned away to escape more interrogation and moved quickly. Police weren't letting the press past the glass doors --- none had gotten in, it seemed, except Jenny and, by her fast talking, Louis. They would have passed by the desk. She knew the hospital, too, and knew where they were going --- but they had a start on her and already knew the room numbers.

The police weren't about to try keeping her out. She entered the lobby. The regulations required visitors to register, with very good reasons this week, and she went to the desk and signed in like any other visitor, even though she was the one person in Metropolis who could have gone anywhere in the city she wanted to.

"Ms. Olsen said you were coming," the receptionist said. She had seen Supergirl before and almost managed to keep her demeanor normal. "Here's a list of the survivors' rooms. Ms. Olsen's already up there."

Up to the next floor --- via the elevator: Sypergirl made no disturbance she could avoid. Still, every eye in the place was on her until the doors closed behind her.

Pratt was the patient first on the list. Gene Pratt --- a young lad surrounded by teddy bears and flowers, and relatives in awe of their visitors, and Jenny's cameras.

"Is he well enough for a hug?" Jenny asked, and receiving word from the nurse that a hug would be therapeutic, handed her camera to Louis and gave him a gentle hug. Supergirl also gave him a hug and signed a soccer ball, and the boy was hugging it when they left the room.

There was an old woman next on the list. Her name was Mildred Harper. But she had no relatives. She'd gotten flowers and, confused by her medications, couldn't understand who would send them.

"All the world is sending them," Louis said softly, holding the old woman's hand. "All the world. They might be from London. Or Paris. A lot of people care. Is there anyone we should call? Is there a relative we could reach, no matter how distant?"

The old woman, who'd just stopped at the Madison for a croissant, her routine every morning, said timidly there was sort of someone, and she was very worried.

Supergirl promised to take care of it.

It was room after room as they went down the hall. The building engineer. A young chambermaid. A businessman from Denver who'd been preparing his slides for a meeting and who had no memory of the event.

Then Jenny stopped by the nurse's station and made a call inside the hospital, to the ICU. And put the receiver down with a pale face and a distraught expression.

She didn't say a word as she walked down the corridor and punched the elevator call button. Supergirl and Louis followed without a word.

Three minutes every two hours. Three minutes and three people was the rule in the Met General Intensive Care Unit --- for the most fragile patients, those whose every heartbeat, every breath, was marked and watched by machines and devoted nurses. But it was close to the appointed time, and these visitors were, well, not available for long visits.

"Billy?" Jenny said, and Supergirl waited, while the monitors beeped a steady thread of life. Even knowing, as Jenny had explained to them, that they'd had to go back to surgery this morning, Jenny might not have expected as grave a situation as the one they found, a boy in such desperate weakness. In all the skein of tubes, with all the apparatus of monitors and IV stand, Billy Anderson lay very still in the scant sunlight that escaped the shut blinds. And there was such anxiousness on Jenny's face, such a terrible fear...

Supergirl knew. Claire knew. She remembered Smallville, and a time she'd sat by a friend she'd saved --- to no avail, as a human body simply couldn't heal. And you knew your strength was so great... but miracles weren't in your power. Somehow it wasn't fair, when you'd gotten a chance back for someone, and then it turned out there was nothing, nothing you could do, after all. Life was both incredibly tough --- and so unexpectedly fragile.

Light and shadow. Light streaming past the shut blinds to touch the pillow with stripes of brightness. Jenny's face --- so tense, so concerned, and nothing the girl from Krypton could do.

"Billy?" Jenny said, demanding that second miracle. And with authority: "Billy, come on. Wake up."

What had seemed like a lifeless doll responded, an indefinable change of muscle tone and then...

Then eyes opened, and recognition was suddenly there: Supergirl saw it even from her vantage, as he saw Jenny's face in that white, reflected glare, saw the soft, wonderful, wondering look she bestowed on the boy. She took his hand, hampered as it was by tubing.

"Billy. Got to get your head up, Billy. Got to hang on. Keep on keeping on."

As she must have said the same words in the depths of that basement. As he must have answered that voice and trusted it implicitly.

"Yeah," he said. Superhearing could hear it. It was so soft.

"You're in the hospital. Your mom and dad are here."

The beep of the cardiac monitor was steady and sure. And Billy turned his head and saw two parents who'd waited through the night --- a father and mother who wanted to hug him tight, and who'd had to settle for watching and waiting a few moments each hour by his bedside.

Jenny started to let go and leave. But Billy gave a lingering, slight tug on her fingers as she pulled free.

"You're all right now," Jenny said. "You're safe."

"Is that Supergirl?"

"Sure is," she said, feeling she had no business intervening. But it made Jenny's retreat easier, along the side of the bed in the cramped quarters the machinery made. "I wish I'd been here sooner."

"That's okay," he said. "Jenny was with me."

The parents captured their boy's hand, and his attention, and Jenny went outside, past the nurse who'd arrived. It was time for Supergirl to leave, too.

"Jenny?" Billy said. But the regulations were right: the boy was exhausted, and the nurse moved in, easing everybody out. The boy was back from the brink, and now the hospital staff and the doctors had things to do --- things with hope of saving this patient.

Jenny was in the hall, moist about the eyes and trying not to show it as she talked to the shaky-voiced parents. The parents were shaky, too; and they might, Supergirl judged as they exited the short restricted hallway into the ICU waiting area, might get some rest themselves, now.

Louis was waiting for them, carrying Jenny's camera bag. There were no pictures allowed on this floor, again with very good reason, and Jenny didn't ask. But in the leave-taking, the mother surrendered a treasured picture from her purse. "I thought till just now it might be all we'd ever have. Thank you, Ms. Olsen. Thank you so very much..."

"I'll take good care of it. I'll bring it back to you," Jenny said.

"We owe you," the father said, "everything."

Jenny looked overwhelmed. And in the usual disorder of such moments the three of them passed the doors of the ICU waiting area into the general corridor, an oddly assorted set, Jenny in her Band-Aids, Louis with Jenny's cameras, and herself, red-caped, conspicuous in any company --- but she might almost as well have been invisible back there, to Billy Anderson.

Not to the people downstairs. Not to so many. Jenny earlier had gotten what should be a good photo --- of young Gene holding his soccer ball. Louis planned a feature for tomorrow's morning edition. He had a tape full of personal stories that would make tonight's edition, too --- while Jenny had snapped photos where patients and families were willing, conscious they might go into the Metropolis archives, a lasting record of a city's heroism.

There were so many stories, so many lives tossed into chaos. Supergirl had personally promised the old woman whose name was Mildred to get into her apartment and find someone to take care of her elderly poodle; and she'd promised another boy who'd broken both legs that, indeed, his teacher would let him make up his homework... not ridiculous concerns, human concerns, for people yanked all unplanned and unfairly into the headlines and away from the things that mattered.

And in such matters, Supergirl had a thousand hands, the volunteers who'd come in to feed pets, phone landlords and elderly uncles. It was a time when human attachments mattered most of all, and when other humans of like attachments understood, and stepped into the breach: Claire had a notion of a story she wanted to write about those nameless volunteers.

But the image that haunted her now was of the girl beside her, that expression, that moment with young Billy, the remembrance of which wouldn't let her go. Walking beside her, Jenny was quiet in a way that had nothing to do with the quiet rules on the floor.

And Louis... Claire and Louis had to talk. She didn't know when or where. He had a deadline. She had one, too.

And her deadline was overseas, half a world away, and had nothing to do with her writing.

There were moments when she felt the walls closing in on her, constraints of time and the life --- the personal life --- that always took second place.

Louis punched the elevator call button a second time. The elevator came about three seconds later.

"I'll go down with you," Supergirl said as they stepped inside. "I'll give them an interview. There's usually a cab out front. Take it."

The elevator reached the ground floor and let them out. There was a side door to the parking garage. Out front, through the glass doors, she could see the cameras, the stakeouts.

"Officer," Supergirl said to one of the guards at the door, "there's a cab in the drive. Could you please snag it for my friends?"

Like most of Metropolis's finest, he would have done anything for her. Sketching her a salute, he went by that side corridor toward the parking garage.

"Are you going to get that lady's dog?" Jenny asked. She knew how she would feel if no one was around to take care of Leroy. "I could do it."

"Run the lot on the front sidewalk a chase, you would." Supergirl grinned at the thought of all the reporters outside chasing Jenny to an old woman's apartment. "And you a cat lover at that. Leroy wouldn't like it if you came home smelling of dog. No, I'll do it. I'll call Bev." Bev was the head of Vets Anonymous, that did just one thing: take care of animals in a crisis. She had no doubt that Bev already had a list. She'd see if Mildred Harper's elderly poodle, Muffin, was on Bev's list, and if not, she'd get into that apartment.

She'd get the other patients' requests to John, at Family Services, and doors would open and phones would ring until human needs were met as well as volunteers could meet them.

Something else was nibbling at the edges of Supergirl's mind. Something nibbling at the edges of Claire's mind.

She turned to Louis. "Ms. Kent mentioned something about a controversy when they were building the hotel. Something about the roof or something. Do you remember anything about it, Mr. Lane?"

He remembered thinking something about that last night, just before falling asleep. He'd then completely forgotten about it.

Now he tried to think back. It had been a busy time in his life for completely unrelated reasons when construction had been going on in that hotel. The Planet itself had been changing hands, and changing hands again. Not to mention Louis nearly making a disastrous marriage with Lex Luthor --- Luthor who had become more and more unbalanced... threatening all the world with her inventive, obsessive malice. Louis had had a lot on her mind when the Madison was being built.

But Supergirl's questions had stirred something. It was in his memory that she was right. He would have to a little digging, see what turned up.

A cab was pulling up at the curb, reporters trailing it, probably having followed it from the parking garage. Others were waiting out front. Louis and Jenny were going to have to walk a gauntlet of reporters who weren't so closely connected to the disaster as to be on some family's visitor's list, and who were, bluntly, jealous --- if they were human.

The reporters backed off when a policeman emerged from the cab. He signaled to his comrades inside the door, who came out and formed a cordon for Louis and Jenny.

Lost in her concern for Billy, the cab has halfway back to the Planet before Jenny first wondered how Supergirl had known that she was a cat lover, let alone the cat's name. Well, no matter. She certainly couldn't go back to the hospital to ask Supergirl.

By that time Supergirl was no longer at the hospital. She went the way the policeman had gone, careful of the breakable door --- but once it was shut and secure at her back, once she was in the concrete garage, with parked cars on one side and the gaping doorway of the garage on the other, the girl from Krypton launched herself for the blue, blue sky.




The evening edition reached the late watch in the newsroom. "Great," was Perry White's judgment.

Louis Lane was still at his desk, hunting back through files, saving down what he found. The Planet's morgue --- the record of old issues --- had gone over to computer record a year or so back. Certainly before the Madison Hotel was built. What he wanted should be in there.

The current issue of the Planet lay on the side of his desk, the issue that had his lead story on the survivors, and Jenny's photo of the lady, Mildred Harper, the one with the elderly poodle. When Jenny had taken that photo, the light from the window had been on the woman, and the old lady, her face a map of choices made and lived with, looked like everyone's grandmother, good and kind.

Jenny Olsen's photo, which he had to compliment her on. Jenny, who was now slumped over Claire Kent's desk, her head cradled on her arms. She'd done beautiful work, if you could call any part of the recent days beautiful...

But you could. That was the point Jenny captured on film. That beauty was in the solemn little girl by the police barrier at the disaster site, so sober, so concerned. It was in the face of Mildred Harper, in the hospital, whose whole family was a little poodle that she didn't even dare to rate as important with all the grief around her... until someone really asked.

And it was in the somber, black-clad circle and linked hands of the family down at the cemetery, where the first funeral of many, may funerals scheduled was being held. Ron had had that assignment, and he'd done a wonderful piece of writing. Louis looked at the photos, and the faces, and Jenny's photos, and knew that what she and the other photographers had captured was beautiful: the love, the human caring, the bewilderment of people who'd led their lives never expecting to be the center of anything so dire. But dignity. That was the thing. From the little girl to the old lady to the grieving man at the cemetery: resiliency, and endurance, and tradition. Human dignity.

That was what he wanted to deal with, that was the story he wanted to tell; dignity --- and justice. And for Billy, Jenny's little Billy --- and for that beautiful old man Ron wrote about, burying his wife, he wanted to know why.

That was the burning question now, why. Amid all the feelings of helplessness and outrage, there was why.

Jenny had just started to snore softly when Perry laid a hand on her shoulder, gently shaking her. "Olsen... Jenny, honey, I'm going to get you downstairs, hear? I'm going to get you downstairs and get a cab, hear? You get your coat."

It was a rescue for the rescuer. She didn't know how she'd get home, without someone to guide her. She'd stayed too long at work, she'd extended too far, and right now she felt bruised in more than her body. There'd just been too much.

Raising her head, she glanced around the newsroom. Most of the lights were out. Louis was still there. Perry was. Ron was. That was about all.

Perry helped her with her coat. She was so sore she could hardly put her arms in the sleeves. She tucked it around her, took her purse, and looked at Louis and Ron.

"Good work," she said, "really good work." There was something infectious about the spirit in the Planet in the last twenty-four hours. And she had to pass on what was welling up and brimming over in her, but she came close to getting soppy about it. Real close.

But Perry took her arm with the compassion of an honest-to-God Southern gentleman and led her to the elevators and down to the lobby.

"You youngsters just move aside," the editor of the Planet said to the junior reporters staking out the Planet's doorstep at this tired, twilight hour. "You just move over. This is one tired lady."

"Ms. Olsen," one persisted.

Perry fixed that one with a snarling stare. "Boy," he said, "you be polite to this lady, or I'll call old Saul Abrams and see what he thinks."

That was still a name to conjure with at the Daily Star, even in this brash generation: a name out of Perry's generation, mostly out of the picture at the Star these days, but a man with standards attached. That name won a retreat, and Perry signaled a cab prowling the street.

He swept the door open when the cab arrived at the curb. "I'm seeing you home," he said, and she was grateful for that.

She'd bet her street was still staked out. She wanted her apartment, and her Leroy, and her shower and her bed.

She was walking wounded, and she'd held the pain back all this time. But she was feeling as if she'd caught her breath by the time the cab pulled up to her apartment, with --- depend on it --- stakeouts.

"I'll get you to your door," Perry said, as the sharks closed in.

But the cabby exited his door. And he opened their door wide, shoved back the importune reporters with a grand gesture as if he were Cinderella's footman, and defended both of them until she'd reached the locked doors.

She was safe beyond that. Perry had gotten her home, matter-of-factly, simple courtesy, he would insist, and maybe it was, to him.

"Thanks," she said. She saw a tired face and wondered how long since he had seen his own home. But no one was there for him. Alice was gone. Their son Jerry was gone. Perry went on working too-long hours, throwing himself into the making of a newspaper --- creating something, working, because it was the right thing to do. But his generation didn't understand friendship with a woman. He'd be her knight, her boss, he'd understand a joke about romance and seeing her to her door, but everything came to him through that filter. "Thanks," was all she could say, again, at the glass doors of her apartment. "Perry, you're the best. Get some rest yourself."

That might have been the first time she'd ever used his first name to his face.

Hero was a role he understood, maybe, in his heart of hearts. Maybe she gave him something he could take home with him, to a dark and empty apartment.

The doors locked automatically. The building manager, the policy was quite clear, wouldn't let the news services into the lobby. She had about enough left in her fingers to push the elevator buttons and to get home to her floor. She had her key out. You always had your key out.

She got the door opened, and Leroy was there, rubbing around her legs as she shed a coat that weighed more than it had in the morning.




Flying was no cure for want of sleep. The brain wanted time to recycle: when it became all one long, uninterrupted day, the ability to keep going and keep thinking was no warrant it was healthy, even for a girl from Krypton.

But Supergirl could do it, and could under the circumstances meant had to, with lives and promises riding on her conscience: she hurtled through the high, cold air with the sun at her heels and the sky shadowing ahead of her.

hifly

Far below, the Atlantic, in those rare patches free of clouds, was a finely wrinkled gray sheet fading rapidly to night. A traveler from space would have thought the planet uninhabited. All traces of humanity disappeared at this altitude, and if she chose not to look more closely or on a finer scale, she could imagine herself alone, solitary, in a sky where not even planes intruded.

Planes tracked the jet stream and the prevailing winds to reach Europe. She knifed through them. They conserved energy whenever they could and relied on lift. She drew energy as she needed it --- in fact could survive without food or water --- but matter was a headier fare, and one of Bobby Lee's big unrepentant chili cheeseburgers, with double fries, would have been very, very welcome if she'd thought of it in the flurry of phone calls that she'd made.

Then, she hadn't been that hungry. But now she was burning it up, drinking in the energy around her, turning the air colder than surrounding air and creating microweather as she went, an effect that could generate a sparkle of ice as moisture froze in midair.

Now her keen vision saw the lights on the shores of France, not so many lights as there might have been a little earlier in the local night. As if she were the moving second hand of a clock and the rolling earth and the day-night terminator were the clockwork, she sent the sun below the horizon behind her and entered the traveling shadow of night.

High, cold air was around her, and the glimmer of stars ahead of her, the thin atmosphere streaming past as she hurtled across the light-dotted European coast. She entered the French airspace and streaked on to the white sentinels of the Alps.

sky1

Mont Blanc was her signpost and Lake Geneva her beacon as she dived earthward --- scanning for the staging area she'd used before, the same that she'd agreed on with the International Red Cross.

Down and down, to a warehouse on the outskirts of Geneva, where a van with the red cross on its side sat in the light of a pole.

She dropped lightly onto her feet in front of the van and wasn't surprised when the door opened and a man hopped out with a clipboard and a flashlight in hand to assist ordinary reading, in the blue-white light of the argon lamps overhead.

"Supergirl," the young man said. Jean-Baptiste was his name, Jean-Baptiste Delaplace, a friend from other missions, a man wearing the Red Cross insignia on his sleeve.

Supergirl took the offered hand.

Immediately, then, Jean-Baptiste, the expediter of anything a relief effort needed, offered his clipboard and then pointed over Supergirl's shoulder with his empty hand. "I have everything, if you will sign, Supergirl. I have maps where --- if you can possibly do something about the bridge --- your impression of the condition of the piling will tell us a great deal, and save an immense effort."

"I received the fax." She had gotten it, at a mail service, during her last-minute foray. "I'll do what I can." She signed the receipt without bothering to look at what he had pointed to, having seen it during her descent. And, she trusted him. "The State Department is handling the paperwork, so it's clear at the other end. All right?"

"Bien, bien, merci." Jean-Baptiste's English was excellent, but he slipped, perhaps trying to think of a last minute item. "No change. No difference."

"Oui." She bridged the language gap without thinking. "Merci bien." She'd scanned the manifest, or whatever one called it when the vessel involved was rectangular, canvas-covered corrugated steel with a blunt cone bolted to the nose. "Good job."

"Tout va," he said and waved a farewell as Supergirl lifted into the air. "Bon soir, Supergirl! Bon voyage!"

"Merci, merci, Jean-Baptiste!" The container was rigged for lifting --- the easiest way for her to get it airborne, and she hauled it aloft, confident in the Red Cross, who knew what forces of acceleration and what wind and cold it had to withstand, and who would have packed it to stand anything.

Geneva fell away behind her. She climbed above the lake, past the air traffic lanes, seeing the blink of aircraft running lights, confident, too, that Jean-Baptiste was on the car phone telling the airport that the blip on their radar was a large shipping container being airlifted to Russia. From there the word would be passed on from one airport to another, traffic controllers passing her on as they would any other aircraft.

On a notable run, airlifting such a portable unit to Ethiopia, the harness had snapped. But she'd caught it long before it hit the lake.

There were no such problems this time.

Relief agencies were on the ground in that remote part of Russia right now, and dawn should be starting there, but the loss of the bridge had made it next to impossible to get supplies to the village refugees or, the State Department had said, the villages on the missing lake. The long way around, along the shores of what had been a high mountain lake, was a route of many kilometers at a crawl, on a road equally affected by the quake --- and beset with the political troubles that had taken hold in this remote little area. This container, the size of a truck itself, was a medical station and feeding station when it unfolded, so at least there would be something available to assist the villagers before and after they could get medical personnel to the area.

And she had a laundry list of other necessities she had to provide, those that weren't packed tight in the interior of the portable: secure shelter, secure pure water supply, good drainage, adequate food and means to cook it --- all the things that supported health.

The items she hadn't brought, she was going to have to lift up from the town below the dam.

Long night, she told herself, looking at the stars above the Carpathians.

But she trusted that, country folk they were, her villagers weren't helpless on that hillside where she'd left them last night. Rain and all, they'd had the tools to obtain shelter, and no group of farmers was going to sit moaning and helpless in the rain as long as they had the supplies she'd given them. Drinkable water wouldn't be a problem where they were situated: beyond catching rainwater, the mountains would surely offer springs the villagers would use if they had the nutrition and the physical strength to climb to get to them.

Getting rid of water was another matter.

And food --- beyond what she'd left them: food, too for the higher, undamaged villages who were now cut off from civilization. Again, farmers and fishermen weren't helpless, and they could live for a while, but there were elderly folk with them, and sooner or later they were going to need that road desperately.

Helicopters had no landing area on that steep hill. The Red Cross had gotten, so they said, a few loads in this afternoon after the weather improved. But they had to hover and drop supplies, and that was risky both to the supplies and to the people on the ground. There were power lines in the area from which the choppers had to fly, and those were risky in the dark and the bad weather.

Let her see what she could do, she'd concluded in the calls back and forth with the State Department.

Meanwhile they'd gotten ten large tents in this morning --- if things had gone well, if the supplies discharged from the copter hadn't rolled down and off a cliff, or lodged in a tree.

And there was going to be a bog where their lake had been, a lot of land with a serious drainage problem, dead fish --- a smelly mess and a health hazard, even at that latitude, that altitude, and in cold air. That lakebed, still a stream course, was feeding water and human and agricultural waste down into the lake lower down. Now the ecological problem that might have been postponed had become acute.

It was no good, to take these people away from the land that defined what they were, to cast them into an urban environment and onto the charity of others. That wasn't rescue.

She had plans. The farm kid from Smallville had a very good grasp of what these people needed most, and experts from agricultural programs and universities all over the world had been channeling information into what had come down to a message from the State Department: We're talking to their government to get the plan approved.

And one, confidential, from the embassy in Moscow: "It's a rebel region. The government is concerned about the rebels in the area. They don't want supplies brought in. They're dragging their feet on permissions."

Grandmother might have been a Bolshevik or a nationalist rebel in her youth, but there hadn't been any secret weapons in the houses she'd stripped in desperate haste. Supergirl didn't set herself up to judge, but she knew noncombatants when she saw them. Likely it was deep, deep politics involving the whole district and its relationship to the central government; ethnic groups, no knowing what sort. The mountains were a patchwork quilt of languages and ethnicities.

She had to ask herself whether a copter landing pad, if she established one, was going to be used primarily for doctors and supplies --- or for other purposes; and what she was getting into. A career of crossing international boundaries into the lives of people in crises hadn't left her ignorant of such possibilities.

If you were going to help people, it was a good idea to find out what was help and what wasn't. That, for starters.




The body wanted to sleep. The mind wasn't having much luck, Louis Lane decided, and wouldn't, not with that computerized information only a keystroke away. Two keystrokes. Three...

The body wanted the wonderful sheets, but the mind was on a trail.

They were holding more funerals tomorrow. A lot of them. There were a lot of people not getting any sleep tonight. There were people in the hospital who weren't that comfortable, either. Including Billy Anderson. His parents weren't getting all that much sleep.

Files. Titles of files. A quick scan for dates: the hotel had been under construction last year. And the hotel opening. That had been --- what? December?

But before then, there'd been controversy about the design.

There'd been a lawsuit. It hadn't been his story. He'd been otherwise occupied. And the Planet had been in turmoil at the time, too, with prospective buyers and everyone worrying about the fate of the paper. They'd just not quite had their minds collectively on the Madison controversy.

But the Planet had covered the lawsuit; and if, digging into those back files, he should discover that some good investigative reporting could have blown the whistle, stopped the construction, saved all those lives --- he really wasn't going to sleep tonight.

There it was. Right around the time he'd nearly made the mistake of his life. His almost-wedding... to the woman whose company, Lexcorp, was the one doing the suing in said lawsuit.

Lexcorp had been going to build the hotel, that was the way it had been; and when the scandal broke that had stopped his marriage --- the truth about Lex Luthor's activities, her plots against the city --- the scandal had also stopped the hotel construction. The Premier Hotel chain, which owned the flagship Madison Hotels and two other less luxurious, less avant-garde chains, had changed contractors on the Madison Metropole Hotel after the site had been cleared for construction and the machines were in place to excavate the foundations. It was, to the average citizen, he was sure, a nothing story, one of those things from the second page of the Business pages, swept off the front pages of the paper into secondary importance by the more widespread troubles of Lexcorp and Lex Luthor's reputation around the time. The Madison had changed architects and abrogated the former contractor.

Lexcorp, amid the near collapse of its financial empire, and the apparent death of its CEO, had sued, fighting back against the breaking of dozens of such contracts throughout the region. All the while Lex Luthor's reputation went down, down, and down, and news stories, breaking at the rate of one a day, were bringing out daily examples of her dealings.

Lexcorp hadn't folded: it had scrambled to distance itself from Luthor and her illegal actions. And sued everyone who tried to get out of contracts with them.

There it was. Premier Hotel Construction Delay.

His eyes were blurring with exhaustion. He'd asked Art Hampton, at the Business and Financial desk, who'd told him the approximate dates before going home for the day.

But it wasn't Art's piece. It was Monique's. Monique had quit the big-city pressure and gotten a job in a financial magazine during the whole Planet buyout fracas. Monique Simms, her name was.

Monique had once had a job with Galaxy Communications.

What time was it? Nine-thirty.

Nine-thirty-eight.

He keyed up his card file. Monique hadn't been at the Planet long. Had blazed into the Planet after Morgan Edge, over at Galaxy, had fired her. She'd been here during the time Lexcorp had owned the Planet, and gone out again, not at the Planet long enough to build much of a network.

But he had her home phone number.

His fingers were like granite. His nerves were like piano wire. He dialed the number he had, and got an answering machine.

"Monique. Monique, this is Louis Lane. You wrote an article on the Madison Hotel. I need to know the lowdown. Anything you know that didn't make it into the article."

It was curious. Someone had picked up the phone. He'd bet on it. And then, just as he gave his number, a male voice said, "Monique's dead. Six months ago."

His heart jolted. That was unexpected news. "I'm very sorry. I'm from the Planet. I --- hadn't heard. No one had..."

The man hung up the phone and left him sitting there.

Monique was dead. That was a shock.

Art hadn't known. Monique had quit the paper and hadn't been here long enough to develop ties to anybody, he supposed. So no one had known.

But dead. How? When? Why? A reporter's chain of questions came quite naturally to this case. From Galaxy Communications to the Daily Planet, from the Planet to... where had she gone?

He dialed another number from his card file. Art's home.

"Art?" Art was an older man. Classical music --- it sounded like Vivaldi --- was in the background as Art Hampton picked up. "Art, it's Louis. Sorry to bother you again, but it was Monique who did that piece on the hotel. Did you know she'd died?"

"Died? No. No, I didn't know. She was a kid, for God's sake."

Anybody under forty --- or was it fifty now? --- was a kid to Art.

"A man answered. I guess a boyfriend, maybe a husband. Said she'd been dead six months and hung up."

He waited for reaction from the other end.

"I had absolutely no idea."

"I've got an article here, on the construction delay. You said you didn't remember anything. But is there anything, Art, any scrap of a thing?"

Art was a good, solid business editor. Death didn't often figure in the stories he handled. There was a moment of silence. "There was a whistle-blower. Testified for Lexcorp and said that Cross & Associates --- they're the company that Premier had picked to do the Madison job instead of Lexcorp --- was cheating on contracts all over the city."

"Fill me in, Art. Please."

Louis hadn't been paying any attention to those dealings then, during the time Lex's company had been involved in the original contracts with Premier Hotels, the time Art was referring to. He had been courting Lex herself during those days, when she had bought the Planet and nearly run it into the ground. She'd put him on staff at LNN, he'd had his head in the sand --- or in the clouds --- and he'd not realized the Planet's financial troubles were Lex's doing.

They'd thought Lex was out of the picture for good, until the rat turned up again, and Supergirl had turned her over to the police for a string of crimes that were then coming to light. He'd been mortally embarrassed --- humiliated, not only about the personal foolishness of almost marrying a snake like Lex, but the professional shame of not having stood with his friends and colleagues. Something had gotten into his head about that time, and good friends and Claire might have straightened him out and got him thinking straight again, for which he owed them everything; but going back into those days and referencing that particular stretch of time with someone who'd been suffering with the Planet --- was excruciating.

"About that time," Art said, "we got our angel." Meaning Franklin Stern, who'd bought the Planet. "Lexcorp needed liquidity to pay off some short calls as well as for legal fees; and then the Premier chain found a loophole in the Madison contract. It nearly killed them."

Freely translated, Lex had spent too much, Lexcorp needed cash in the worst way.

"So Lexcorp did the design for the Madison!"

"No, no, they had done a design, but the Premier chain claimed the contract was void and awarded a contract to Cross & Associates. Who did their own design. Then Lexcorp sued. The Premier chain didn't want even the suspicion of a connection to Lexcorp, not even so far as using the design. And..." A small clearing of the throat. "... scandal involving the Lexcorp CEO enabled them to void the contract. There was a Reputation and Goodwill clause. The Premier chain won."

"So what's this about a whistle-blower?"

"A Cross & Associates engineer contacted us saying the Cross design was flawed. I assigned Monique Simms to interview the man. Galaxy ran the piece. We didn't." There was a small pause, as perhaps Art dealt with the terrible question --- what he'd had a chance to report about the hotel, and hadn't.

But others had reported it. The information, true or false, had gotten to the public. Art had nothing to be ashamed of. He'd been on the job making decisions. Louis had been in the throes of emotional crisis. He hadn't been on the job.

"You didn't believe it?" he asked Art.

"Harold Cross is a reputable architect. Galaxy ran the piece." It was the second time Art had said so in as many minutes, pounding that point home, that the information hadn't been secret. "We didn't go with the story because we waited while Premier had another firm check it out. And while city engineers went over it. It wasn't so. It just wasn't so."

Art said it wasn't so. The hotel design was sound. While people lay in the hospital. And in caskets.

"So," Louis began slowly, "what do you think? What's this whistle-blower's name?"

"Smalley."

"Do you have any idea of his whereabouts?"

"Right now? The cemetery."

"When?"

"The day the article came out. Suicide. Cross denied firing him. But he committed suicide."

"Was it suicide?"

"Maybe. Maybe it wasn't. Smalley said Cross had ignored his advice. He said the design wouldn't hold up under snow load. He'd sent that in a letter to the chairman of the Premier Hotel chain, and died."

Monique... was dead. A man named Smalley... was dead.

Sixty people... were dead.

Maybe he should adjust the air conditioning. Maybe it was exhaustion. He felt chilled through as he made a courteous end to the conversation with Art and hung up.

But he had an agenda for tomorrow, something to fight for.

No bomb, Supergirl had said so.

He shut his eyes and he saw the garage. Jenny crawling into that hole because no one else was small enough. He saw hospital beds. Tubing. Jagged lines of light on a scope, lines that defined a life. And Billy's hand, closing on Jenny's, because the voice that had spoken to him out of the dark for so many hours said, firmly, Wake up, Billy.

He came back for Jenny when even his parents hadn't roused him.

That was the faith he had. And now he had a lead on what had put him in that bed. If there'd been fault covered up, he'd uncover it. If there'd been fools, he'd find them. An engineering investigation into a structural failure was going to take time: weeks and months of measurement taking and wrangling, maybe, for the engineers to do their jobs, but the families of hose people deserved the right answer, not just an answer that protected companies from lawsuits.

Monique, dead. That had been a shock. He wondered who the man answering the phone had been.

What Monique's short life had been.

Lord, this was one of those stories with threads going under so many doors, and a reporter sat and shivered with exhaustion and the desire to be following those leads.

And Lex Luthor. God, Luthor. Was there no burying the corpse of that old association?

He couldn't get her out of his mind as he finally gathered his coat and headed for home, barely aware of the stakeouts at the Planet's door, flagged a cab.

She, Luthor, was in prison on Stryker's Island. Safe... in prison... where he hoped she stayed for the rest of her life. Creepy thought to take to bed.

No need to go in to the office in the morning. He'd call from the field. Tell Perry he was on a lead.

He didn't want to set the harpies out front to flapping about this trail, alerting every carrion crow in town.




Tents were up, a little spider's nest of tents pitched crazily among the trees in the sunlight, ropes stretched to tree trunks, supporting canvas. The wagon was part of it all. The pony, startled out of sleep, was picketed by the tents, along with Grandmother's cow. The pigs and chickens set off an alarm, as a truck-sized module arrived out of the clear blue sky.

"Supergirl!" a child's voice cried, and the villagers, huddled together around the warmth of a modest fire, rose and came to see this wonderful item in her hands... which was no easy matter to set down. Supergirl hovered with her load while villagers lent a hand, moving a pile of rocks and brush up to brace one side.

She eased it down, let go gingerly, ready to dive to stop it sliding down. A one-woman construction agency couldn't simultaneously brace and rig a platform and hold the thing in the air; but with it off her hands --- literally --- she could scurry about doing a little rearrangement of the hillside, smashing up rock into rubble and fill and then into finer gravel that settled in and held the larger rocks. It was an essentially noisy process. The dogs barked and chased something they couldn't see. She had a lot to do, and she didn't do it for show, but the villagers, who'd probably seen movies but never television, and had certainly never seen her in action, applauded and cheered whenever she stood still to consider her next move.

"What is she doing?" figured in the questions. She knew that much. But she couldn't explain the details.

"Ohh," came the knowing exhalation when she moved the truck-sized module firmly onto the foundation she'd made. "Ahhh," as she began to adjust and level it.

Even Grandmother was impressed when the aerodynamic cone came off and extended legs to become a sheltering pavilion, on legs that Supergirl's hands didn't need a wrench to adjust.

Then she dropped the hatch beneath the cone and revealed supplies packed to the walls of the mobile medical unit. The first thing she set out was a generator, to run the lights, and the fuel to power it.

Then she set up, to the side of it, a portable shower and a sanitary unit, which the villagers, muddy and bedraggled, thought was the funniest thing they'd ever seen.

"They send us toilets and electrical generators!" The villagers laughed. "Perhaps next we get a commissar!"

"We need the toilet," an old man said. "No use for the commissar!"

Laughter followed that sally.

And Grandmother and the notables had to have a tour.

"There are electrical lights," Supergirl said to Dimitri, the same young villager who'd flown with her to save Grandmother. "But not much petrol for the generator. Doctors will come. But they send medicines everybody should take, to prevent getting sick."

She was the first candidate for hand washing, with the sterile water and disinfectant the unit provided. She cleaned spots on various villager arms and delivered injection that, she was sorry, did hurt. But less than fever would. if you were the only outsider who could get there, you had to be a medic at need --- you had to give the shots, patch the wounds, and you had to explain, through the translator, the necessity of keeping non-sterile hands off the equipment that real medics would use, once she was able to get the road open.

But much as she had to take on herself in the emergency, the decision of what to do next wasn't hers. These people deserved a voice in their own destiny, and through the young man who translated, she laid out the possibilities to the village. She spread out her map and discussed where the lake was now, and where the other villages were, where the road went, all those things.

The road. That was what they understood: that was what located them conceptually within her map --- when it was possible this remote village had never seen a printed map. She wasn't sure that they had. They understood what she was demonstrating once they realized that, and they were glad to know that the other villages, those that had ringed the missing lake, were still there.

"There," Grandmother said through the interpreter, jabbing the map with a newly scrubbed finger. "There was our village. That is our land,"

"Before the dam?" It was the lakebed she pointed to.

"Before the dam," Grandmother said, and lamely, through the medium of the young interpreter and the occasional contribution of others leaning close about the map, she heard the story, how the government had built the dam and moved them off their land at gunpoint. The place where the lake was had been their pasturage. And the government had taken it. What she'd heard from the State Department indicated that the lower dam might have been built for electrical power; but the upper one had very likely been simply to break up a troublesome unity of villages.

"Maybe," Supergirl said, knowing that she was stepping where not only angels but diplomats feared to tread. But these were farmers. She knew how they felt about the land. "Maybe it can be your pasture again. The earthquake will happen. It's a bad place for a dam."

"Good place for sheep," Grandmother said decisively, and rested her hands on the head of her stick. "Very good place for sheep."

It was a mudflat, soon to be rank with its dead fish and dead weeds, a mudflat eroded into a chasm with the rip that had taken out the dam. But clearly there had been in the original pasturage a stream that channeled the water from the mountain heights down the valley, ultimately to the lowlands. That stream was flowing now, she was well sure, in her personal memory of a broad, dark scar shining with isolated pools of water as she came in by air.

"The old river ran here?" she asked Grandmother, and traced what she thought would be the line.

Grandmother's arthritic finger traced a truer line, and through the young man's translation she learned the particulars, the valley of Grandmother's youth, a green and beautiful valley.

The old regime had cared nothing for that. Ill-conceived engineering, industry let loose to smoke up the sky and the land --- the valley had been part of some plan to electrify the region, or simply a promise to try to impress the locals, or a boondoggle for an official hell-bent on power. Whatever it was, no dam ought ever to have stood there.

And a face hardened by difficult years grew softer, gentler, just in the telling of it. And angry when she talked about the corruption and the failures.

Supergirl didn't want to raise hopes that she could do anything. Too much land might have washed away. Dirt wasn't just dirt. Topsoil was different from sterile, far-under-the-surface earth. There was life in one, not in the other, and you couldn't just dump dirt from just anywhere onto the place and expect it to grow good weeds, let alone be a good pasture.

A botched job was what this district had already gotten, rural traditions run over and trampled, farmers' common sense ignored in favor of some party-line executive with industrial and political dreams that wouldn't work.

Botch the recovery, however, and not only wouldn't weeds grow, it would become a maze of gullies, silting up the dam below.

It was with the least little hope that the old woman looked at her.

"I'll try," the girl from Krypton said.




The harpies on the doorstep doubtless told the harpies at the Planet's door that he was on his way to work.

But the cab hadn't gone there.

He hadn't gone there.

He went instead to a donut shop out by the state office complex and bought a sack of jelly-filled and cream custard Bismarcks.

Then Louis Lane took the same cab to one of those thoroughly workaday venues a reporter had sometimes to search. He went to the third floor of City Hall (a mere wrong turn away from the court and the orange-clad principals of the docket) and shared a cup of morning coffee with the woman who used to work at the motor license bureau and who now worked for the Records Bureau. He never gave up a contact.

And BJ never gave up a fondness for donuts from the Hole in One, six miles away by cab, across from the motor license bureau and as good as on the moon from her present job location. Louis knew the way to BJ's heart, and enjoyed a gloriously sinful raspberry Bismarck himself while BJ, in a more somber way and with the implication she ached to do something to find answers about the Madison, said she'd be glad to hit the computer in answer to a question.

"But I can tell you Cross is big," BJ said. "A lot of big jobs. That's who the city hall had build the Arts Center. And there's the telephone building. And the hotel. This is about the hotel, isn't it? I saw you on television, with Jenny Olsen. I read your paper. How's that little boy?"

"Improving. Thank you."

"Just a minute." BJ stuffed the last of a cream custard Bismarck into her mouth, dusted her hands, and headed for the outer office like a fighter heading for the ring. She set herself in front of a terminal in that office, at which she labored with enviable speed. Louis sat and sipped the good donut-shop coffee and watched through the glass panels as BJ retrieved something.

She came back with a printout and sat down, offering it to him.

It was Cross & Associates's entire list of building permits and executed contracts over the last ten years.

The brand new Arts Center.

The new Sun Towers Retirement Center.

The new parking facility and Children's Wing of Metropolis General Hospital.

He didn't say a word, although his heart had just gone thump, and still beat harder.

"Those so-and-sos did the hospital," she said, with indignation in her eyes.

"I don't know what the story is. I tell you, I promise you, BJ, a phone call when I know what the truth is. The minute my editor knows, you'll know. Don't talk about it, don't tell anyone."

"It's public record," she said. "And you aren't the first to mention Cross, I hate to tell you."

"Who?"

"LNN."

Louis gulped coffee gone tepid and objectionable. "This morning?"

"About an hour ago. They weren't here, but they were running stuff on Cross & Associates. I don't think they had the list. But it was on the air about Cross. I saw it at breakfast."

BJ had seen it at breakfast. He, Louis Lane, ace reporter, prize-winning fool, hadn't had the television on and had counted on the donuts for breakfast.

Of course, reporters who'd run the story on the Premier Hotel-Lexcorp lawsuit were going to remember there'd been a charge that the Cross design was flawed. Everything was an of course to reporters at LNN, whose parent company, Lexcorp itself, couldn't be ignorant of what had become one of the key points in the contract dispute with Premier Hotels.

Of course LNN had the story. What LNN had access to was limited only by what Lex Luthor and her lawyers and her architects had been willing to commit to file folders or computer records.

Ask what an LNN reporter could lay hands on, metaphorically speaking, with a simple phone call, while he was chasing across town trying to get things the hard way.

Louis Lane, ace reporter, was playing catch-up with every media organization in the country by now. Playing catch-up with the world, for that matter. If he wanted to know what was going on in that department, he might as well go back to the Hole in One and watch the news over his second cup of morning coffee.

That wasn't an option.

"Can I use the phone?" he asked BJ, treading near her rules about reporters, he was sure; but she was willing. He used the phone book, looked up Cross & Associates, and tried the number.

Busy. Busy. Busy.

Ask how many other reporters were trying to interview Harold Cross. Phone, fax, or e-mail, there was going to be a human wall of reporters at Number 5, Industrial Park Plaza.

"No luck?" BJ asked.

"No," he said. Louis Lane was being outmaneuvered, outclassed, outgunned. He ached in every muscle, the letdown after the euphoria of the success was arriving with a vengeance, and he momentarily asked himself if maybe a day off wouldn't be good idea at this point. He'd lost half a day to sleep after he'd written his initial article, he'd written a good story yesterday afternoon, but he was just running out of leads. Score one for LNN.

But there was someone he knew who could speak with a special knowledge on the Cross-Lexcorp controversy. Someone he'd rather not deal with. Someone he'd as soon not see as long as he lived.

His former fiancée.

Alexandra.

Lex.

Lex Luthor.


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