The imposing facility on Stryker's Island wasn't open to tourists. It never had been open to tourists. It wasn't likely to be open to tourists any time in the near future.
It was, from the heaving deck of the once-daily visitor center boat, a gray, windowless fortress with nothing but a dock for the visitor and supply boats, a maximum security prison in midriver, next to the biggest thicket into which an escapee could vanish: Metropolis itself. And Stryker's Island in the face it turned to Metropolis took no pains to present a comfortable image to the city, only to do its job: confining, limiting, walling in its population --- some of the most dangerous women in the world.
Once called "The Alcatraz of Metropolis," the facility had originally been built to house men, but the island had proven too small to contain the growing population. A new, larger facility had been built for the men in the rugged hills above Metropolis and the island renovated, refurbished, and turned over to the women. It would still be some time before this population outgrew the facility.
Though the way the world was going...
Trying not to think about that, he looked around the boat. It was a small company on board, mostly men and only a few women --- most looking tired, some hard, a few who seemed to know each other. There were no children on board; children were only allowed once per month. Standing by the door of the little cabin or seated on the hard plastic benches, the passengers talked in voices that seldom rose above the sound of the engines, the slap of waves against the hull.
It had nearly taken moving heaven and earth for Louis Lane to get a pass and an interview. He'd had to take it all the way to the state capitol and negotiate with the attorney general herself to get this cleared. He'd been afraid he'd have to take it all the way to the governor.
The boat finally reached the wind-shadow of the high walls and chugged up to the concrete dock and the little security post. The engines backed and eased the boat in with hardly a bump. The gangway went out, the passengers got up and formed a line at the cabin door, and Louis joined the queue, uneasy in the company of men and women whose lives and motives were further outside his imagining than those of the criminals incarcerated here.
There might be a story in them. He told himself so. He didn't willingly cut himself off from questions like motivation and loyalty, or desperation --- he didn't know. He just didn't emphasize. He didn't see them as like himself, but the eyes of the guards who passed them ashore might not see the difference, except maybe in the cut of his tailored suit.
His papers, which he'd gotten at the security station on the city shore, didn't say the same as the rest. He laid down his Planet ID and the signed permit that was different from the ones relatives carried. The officer's tone changed immediately, dealing with him, became charged with respect.
They gave him a red Press tag and not a white Visitor badge. They drew him out of the line, and ahead of the rest, and gave him priority over them; more, the officer in charge knew his name. "I saw you on television," was the approach, as the officer walked him past the barred, modern gate, through the metal detector. He was patted down before allowed past other guards and an electronic lock.
It was that notoriety that had gotten him to Stryker's Island --- that and the fact that every reporter in the city was engaged in either following him or following the other leads on the case.
He was the first one to follow this end of the story, and he'd bet that no LNN reporter would show up here even if they'd thought of doing it: LNN as well as Lexcorp was still trying to live down its origin and its former connection to Lex Luthor. Lex was not LNN and had no influence on its policies or its corporate structure: that was the position LNN's corporate heads took, as other CEOs and new boards of directors came in to reassure anxious stockholders after Luthor's --- presumed --- suicide and disgrace. LNN hadn't been eager to cover the subsequent investigation or to reach deep into its archives to provide background during trial coverage when Luthor had proved to be very much alive, and culpable for looting treasury funds as well as for murder, attempted murder, and a dozen other crimes. The grand jury had been in session longer than any grand jury in Metropolis history just racking up the charges. And LNN at that time had largely ignored the story.
But Louis very well understood LNN's reluctance to confront the woman who'd once been one of the most respected corporate heads in the country, who'd moved in the glittering high altitude of Metropolis society, who'd been ready with her checkbook whenever it would secure influence. Lex Luthor had had the ear of senators and committee heads in Washington and she'd truly contributed so much innovation and growth to Metropolis that covering her downfall was a little --- particularly for LNN --- like reporting a family scandal.
Every closet had a painful secret. Every nook one could investigate held painful remembrances of times when association with a glittering, meteoric force in Metropolitan life had been exciting, full of brilliant conversation and wonder whimsy.
But that whimsy had gone inexplicably to the darker side and left her former associates both bereaved and ashamed.
He knew it better than any corporate executive. He, Louis Lane, who'd been at standing the altar by the woman he thought he'd known so well.
He didn't like to think about that nightmare --- the absolute classic nightmare of reversal of fortunes. And then he'd had to duck the cameras --- the tabloids waiting to interview him and get Luthor's "prince consort's" reaction to her suicide; the phones ringing months later to get Luthor's "prince consort's" reaction to her subsequent reappearance.
Louis hadn't wanted any of it. He'd been excruciatingly embarrassed.
And it was no great joy he had in coming here now, standing with these other men and reflecting that there, but for the grace of God and Supergirl's --- and Claire's --- steadfastness, he would have stood, his reputation tied to a convicted felon.
It took a lot to board the boat to come here.
It took a lot to walk down this hallway, not to the interview room the other visitors used, but to a special high-security area, that was what they'd said.
A special area because Lex Luthor wasn't an ordinary prisoner. And because no ordinary security was adequate to hold her.
Electronic locks thumped open as the guard used keys, two in number, one supplied by the guard outside. A solid door opened onto a grim, small room with a grid of thin wire, five inches to a square, suspended like a web between a safe railing on his side of the room, and safe bars, on the other. A plain white wall was behind those bars. It held a metal door. There was no furniture. One stood waiting at the railing, at the bars, with the wire web just out of reach.
An electric charge thumped and hummed. The web was alive. And deadly.
"That's fifty thousand volts, Mr. Lane," the guard said, pointing unnecessarily. "Stay behind the railing. That's safe."
Louis nodded. "I understand."
This level of security attended the woman he'd been willing to marry. Whose bed he'd been willing to share. It was surreal.
So was it as the door opened behind the bars, and a figure walked in, in those flimsy prison slippers, in a white uniform that --- this much was so incongruously like her --- was fresh and pressed, though with no regard to whether a seam was straight.
The bars cast a strange shadow over her. She stopped a little back of them as he had stopped a little short of the wooden railing.
The door closed behind her. The guards had drawn back.
And left him alone with this silent, strange figure barred with shadows.
Strange and yet familiar, oh so familiar. Alexandra Luthor. Lex.
"Hello, Lex," Louis said into the silence.
She moved forward then, so that light fell on her eyes, and a diagonal bar of shadow went across her face. Even now her face was beautiful. The piercing eyes hadn't changed at all. They could look so soulful. And so mocking.
And the mouth. Those soft, pouting lips. So kissable...
The lips were moving. "My dear Louis," Lex said, "I wondered how long it would take you to come here. You do need me, so it seems. How is the outside world? Day and night? Rain and sun? Do those things still go on?"
He couldn't imagine an existence so deprived. He thought he'd go mad.
Then he realized in that one sentence she had him thinking about her agenda and not the other way around.
"I trust you hear what goes on," he said with all the coldness he could muster. Which wasn't enough to convince anyone, least of all himself. "About the hotel."
She stared at him. Just stared, with those remarkable eyes that were still the Lex Luthor he'd known, that he'd once loved --- or thought he'd loved --- that still carried humor, and wit, and made you believe in her. It would be so easy to fall under their spell again. He felt himself drifting...
"What about the hotel? What hotel?" A calm, a reasoning voice. "Don't be nervous, my dear Louis. Nothing's changed. Nothing's different. What can I do for you?"
Her voice brought him back. Why had he come here? Why had he thought he'd get any truth? "I thought," he said, "you might know something about the hotel. I thought, after all you've done, you might still care..." ... about this city, he'd started to say.
"Of course I care, Louis. When you ask, of course I care, my dear Louis." She moved closer to the bars. She had such beautiful hands. One entered the light, curled itself around the bar, stark white on gray steel. There had been a time when those hands had almost been strong enough to bend those bars. There had been a time when he'd loved the touch of her hands on his body, sending shivers running up and down his spine. Now he fought to keep a shiver from running down his spine at the memory. He tried not to think about that, not to shrink away from her hand, instead concentrating on her words. "What hotel? What are you trying to say?"
He hadn't been nervous. But she treated him as if he was, and he was becoming what she wanted. And she'd go on, making him spiel it out, all. He drew a breath and gathered up the essentials as if he were talking to a child. "The Madison Metropole Hotel collapsed. People were killed."
Was that genuine astonishment, that lift of the brows, rounding of the lips into silent surprise, the drawing back of the whole body into barred shadow? The hand stayed. "So the hotel came down."
"And Lexcorp said the design was flawed. They sued."
"You know that Lexcorp sued the hotel chain!" She was stonewalling. It was part of the act. He knew it was.
"My dear Louis, I had a good deal else on my mind after the two of us... separated." Fingers flexed on the bars. The voice was imperturbable, caressing. "But yes, they should have sued. Did Cross build it?"
Holding out just the tiniest promise of cooperation to prevent his breaking the mood.
"Yes. Lexcorp maintained the design was flawed. What flaw? What's your take on it?"
"Why don't you ask Harold Cross?" The voice was low, and the ghost of a smile danced in the dark eyes.
"I am going to ask him. But right now I'm asking you."
"No one asks me." So, so soft, that voice. "No newspaper. No television."
"The hotel." He was adamant. Anger warmed the chill from the room. The hum of charged wires underlay everything. "If you're going to stonewall me, Lex, I'll be out of here."
She sighed. "What do you want to know, my dear?"
"Lexcorp had the bid for the hotel construction. When you disappeared..."
"Yes?" She was staring at him. The light-and-shadow face held anticipation. Both hands held the bars, and she leaned her forehead against the steel. "When I disappeared?"
"You were disgraced." He enjoyed saying that. It was the only way to get to her, that terrible, terrible pride. "Cross offered his design and the Premier chain invoked the Loss of Goodwill clause in the contract to break the agreement with Lexcorp. Lexcorp sued to maintain the contract. Or to collect funds. How did they settle it?"
"I'm sure I don't know." Lex hung against the bars, as close, as intimate as she could get. "Tell me."
"Premier won. Or maybe there was a settlement. I'll look it up. It's not important. Probably you wouldn't know the answer anyway."
"It's so good to see you, Louis."
She wasn't going to rise to the lure.
And he'd seen enough, heard enough, endured enough. "Have a good day, Lex."
"Tell Cross he was a fool."
He'd started to turn away. He turned back sharply at the figure lounging lazily against the steel bars. "In what respect?"
"Just tell him."
"I'll know not to come back." Ants were crawling over his skin. A prison had a smell to it. It had gotten into his nostrils and settled on his skin, his clothes. He knew that Lex was obsessed with him, that whatever she was in cold blood, that blood didn't run cold where he was concerned, and that he'd never be absent from her thoughts, not in this place --- and not if she reached the sunlight. It was the one weapon he owned with her --- so long as she was locked behind bars.
"You can't help it," Lex said softly. "You won't forget me, tonight, when you go to sleep. Will you, Louis?" Slender fingers uncurled from the bar and emerged into the light, a white, beautiful hand. "You're such a tactile creature. You love satin. I remember. You should always sleep on satin."
"You're really out of touch." He was safe, while the bars were there, while the current flowed. And two could play this game. "I don't think you have what I need."
"What you need, my dear Louis, is a woman. Not that cold fish..."
He was not going to drag Claire into this. Not that she was the woman he wanted, but he knew that Lex and Claire had been feuding since their teens. "The hotel. Or I'm out of here."
"Pyramids?" He wasn't sure it wasn't some new game. Or Lex was going around the bend with him?
The hands left the bars to shape a triangle. To invert it, two long forefingers touching, two thumbs making the tip. "A single pillar beneath it all, upholding the whole design. And if that goes..." The hands clenched and curled. Concrete shattered, rebar bent, glass broke, and fourteen floors of a fifty-story hotel pancaked down into the garage... was that how it had happened?
His breath was stopped in his throat.
"Cross said it would stand the strain. Heating and cooling, summer and winter..." Her voice was soft but animated. "Expansion and contraction. All that motion above it. A pyramid distributes weight, do you see? It focuses weight --- here." The hands reshaped the design. "Upside down, the weight is here. The Lexcorp design distributed the weight in buttresses... the points of a square base, with footings running out from the base into the bedrock that underlies the city. The oldest rock in the world lies under the city, the oldest, the densest, the most solid. But Cross and his design turn everything upside down, bringing all the weight down to one pillar. Architectural arrogance. Just because he can do it is not proof he should do it."
"And that gave way. That would collapse the hotel."
"If that one pillar gave way, yes." This was the Lex he'd known, an enthusiasm almost childish in its vitality. "Yes, it would have. The difference in the two designs --- the reason there'd been no high-rise buildings on that particular site --- is the cost of sinking deep enough at that particular point to set pillars against the bedrock. The south side of the building, yes; the bedrock is solid. But there's a depression to the north. We said, sink three deep pilings to reach it. Cross said he could sink one --- one, to hold up fourteen floors of the north tower."
"Saving construction costs?"
"Not that much. That's the point, my dear Louis. His construction techniques, to take advantage of that single support, cost just as much. The Lexcorp design... my design... didn't require any special manufacture. Everything was in warehouse, off-the-shelf items..."
"From a Lexcorp subsidiary."
Both hands returned to the bars. "Louis, you wound me."
"But it would have been."
"My dear Louis, Cross would have bought his standard supplies from our subsidiaries. It wasn't the loss of revenue from that quarter. It was simply unwise to go with that design. Engineering says it was unwise. Am I not right? Can you say now that my design wasn't right?" She pulled back from the bars and gave a dismissive wave of the hand. "But that was my successor's concern. I was by then no longer concerned with the day-to-day operations of the corporation. The hotel chain wanted out of a Lexcorp contract and here we are. How many died?"
"Sixty. Hundreds injured." There was no way to fix responsibility on Lex. As things sounded, Lexcorp had been giving good advice. "Did you do the design yourself?" Lex was a genius --- literally. She'd built Lexcorp around the rare combination of financial and engineering ability. Her slide into madness was a tragedy of lost promise, not only for her company but for the city which could have benefited so much from her creative side.
Unfortunately, there was that other side. He'd met it.
"Of course I did it myself." Lex hadn't done the college study in architecture, in law, in business, in engineering, that would have given her the degrees and licenses, the requisite letters after her name. She'd built an empire and hired those who had them only so they could vet her ideas. "Going against my design was their choice. They'll have to live with it. Won't they?" Her eyes narrowed. "Your face is scratched. Your hands are cut. Did you get into a fight?"
"I was fighting to haul a little boy out of the hotel basement." It had been Jenny who'd done the hardest --- and most dangerous --- share of the work, but he wanted to see Lex's reaction.
"You weren't in it!"
"No," he said calmly. "But hundreds were." There'd been such genuine concern in her voice. And such relief on her face when he'd said he'd not been inside. Why did he feel she'd cared about that answer?
"And where was Supergirl?" she asked. "Where was your other friend when hundreds of people were in harm's way? Why were you pulling little boys out of basements?"
"Supergirl was overseas."
"Overseas. Where's a good woman when you need one, eh? Overseas." The laughter in her eyes didn't reach her mouth. "And your poor hands, your poor face. I'll think about you, my dear Louis. I'll dream about you tonight. Will you dream about me?"
"I don't think so."
"Oh, yes, you will." The solemn face flashed that lazy-eyed, childish grin that he'd once thought so engaging. "You will."
"Smalley. An engineer named Smalley. How did he die?"
There wasn't a flicker. "I have no idea who you're talking about."
"I've got to go now."
"Go ask Cross his side of things. But come back when you like. And you will come back, Louis. You'll know when I'm thinking about you. You'll know when the breeze blows through your apartment at night --- that I've been there, in my dreams."
"I'll change the locks, then."
"That won't keep me out." She tapped the side of her head. "I'll be here, Louis. I'll always be here. And someday..." She drew back into the slanted shadows. "Someday you'll look in the mirror and I'll be there in the flesh, standing right behind you. Change your locks, change your phone, change your address, go anywhere you like: I always know. I'm always there. You're mine and no other woman will ever take my place."
"I'm my own, and you've gotten boring, Lex. That's the ultimate sin. You've grown boring, and I'm leaving." It was incredibly dangerous to bait Lex. She was clever, and though the ties to Lexcorp were officially severed, she had had an immense organization behind her. But with him, to torment him, she'd delegate nothing, and he knew it, and rode the waves of a giddy defiance of the bugbear she tried to be. "Guard, I'm ready to leave."
"Scared you, have I?" She was grinning. "Louis Lane in full retreat."
He turned back around to face her. "You'd better keep it all in your dreams, Lex. You're in here for the rest of your life."
"Don't count on it."
The grin stayed, challenging him. He'd have gone back to that wooden railing and taken her on for another round, but he'd gotten what he'd come for and the guard had opened the door behind him, expecting the interview was done.
"Boring," he said, and walked out.
The guard shut the door, a noise that thundered up and down the hall. "Nasty customer," the guard said. "I'd take anything she said with a grain of salt."
"I do," Louis replied.
But he couldn't shake the last night of him, a white, pajama-clad figure in slantwise bars of shadow, faceless to him.
Saying, Don't count on it.
Night, after a day of surveying and moving supplies. A day of clearing and patching roads, ferrying supplies, lifting trucks out of the mud.
And a military camp on the other side of the river, the staging point for the International Red Cross and the other relief agencies.
Night didn't stop her work. Nor did it stop consultations. A lantern hung from a tent pole of the staff tent illumined a table of maps and charts and a circle of tired faces. They were civil authorities, Russian military and technical personnel, a Red Cross administrator, and Supergirl, a single brightness in among so much khaki and so many mud-stained uniforms. The engineers had been working since the dam failure. So had the army.
Now the army, laboring nonstop, was preparing to move in old pontoon sections as a stopgap, but with the water level sunk, the whole approach to the river a chasm leading to a mud terrace, leading to another mud terrace, it was going to be difficult to restore the road. The earnest hope was that the bridge pilings were going to be viable.
Supergirl watched closely as the senior engineer, an elderly Russian with thickened knuckles, drew a sketch based on the more obscure printouts, charts, and soundings --- which the engineers didn't expect a layman to grasp.
The sketches made certain things clear, however, and the printouts of subsurface features, so complex they looked as much like weavings as printout, made sense in ways Supergirl didn't admit or explain. She'd met the like of such soundings many times, and her eye made sense of the readouts in ways that had very much to do with the way her supersenses integrated in her brain.
There'd been a time before she was thirteen she'd been sure she was going blind --- the supersenses had started sharpening, giving her ways of seeing and hearing that had really started before that but, one week at about thirteen, had begun to accelerate to a point approaching chaos.
She'd had her moment of teenage rebellion against a set of senses making less and less order of the world. She'd taken off walking down the road and walked clear to Burnham and back again on the edge of her thirteenth winter, in the middle of a raging blizzard, because the visions were coming to her so strongly and hammering at her and blurring and revising the world she'd thought she knew, until she couldn't be sure she wasn't going blind or mad. She'd wanted to lose herself until she could be sure, worst thought of all, that she wasn't going to hurt her parents, her friends, the whole town. She hadn't known what was happening to her. There'd been no one to ask. She'd feared to upset her parents.
It had been called "X-ray vision" so often that even Claire Kent used that term in the articles she wrote about Supergirl and her exploits. But it was more like sensing through things by what echoed and didn't and letting the visual sense interpret it: the conflicting images made ripples if you looked at it without spreading it out in your mind; and if you did that with a kind of depth perception that didn't depend on binocular vision but on actually getting information from inside an object.
"I see it very clearly," Supergirl murmured to the senior engineer, who was from Moscow. "I see it, no problem." She wasn't quite sure of her vocabulary when they were talking in precise engineering and mathematical terms, but she was sure that she understood the lay of the rocks and the set of the pilings that sustained the critical bridge. "Spaciba."
"The lights..." one of the juniors began. There'd been worry about getting powerful lights down to the bottom of the muddy water, where there was no visibility.
"I don't need them the way a camera does," Supergirl said. "It's all right. I'll be back."
She was tired. She had no right, she told herself, to compare her exhaustion with theirs, but after nights of no sleep and no dreamtime and a steady diet of crises both theirs and her own, she was tired. A hot drink and a meal had come very welcome at the aid station. A half-hour nap would have come even more welcome than that.
But she was glad the army had flown in the engineers and his charts, and she was glad to talk to the man from Moscow. The printouts made a lot of things clearer because they were a historical record of what the bottom had looked like before the flood. The man, insisting the foreigners know that his administration had had nothing to do with building the dam, had the authority to get them from a government office in Pyatigorsk; they'd been expedited thanks to a request from the White House to the Kremlin, and they were invaluable.
If she could find the present state of affairs, in this night of cold drizzle, and compare the results to these charts, it would make the military engineers' jobs easier. It was solid volcanic rock down there beneath the flood. The bridge pilings had been sunk into it.
The question was whether the swirling, particulate-laden floodwaters had changed that bottom profile, scouring the bottom very much like a water-borne sandblasting, and how deeply those pilings were still set.
She excused herself to men who might now get a little sleep. She stepped out of the tent and, spreading her arms wide, launched herself into the air, above the tent and surrounding camp, once again exulting in the sheer freedom of flight.
Not that there was all that much around here to be exultant about. The previous night --- the region being riddled with bandits and revolutionaries sometimes indistinguishable from each other --- the army had lost a vehicle and two soldiers to a landmine.
A rebel group had claimed they had blown up the dam. And at another time, in other events, it wouldn't have made her angry; but she'd seen enough in the last couple of days, and here it was the same thing. Anything, anyone's grief for publicity. Pounce on the phone and try to coattail other humans' suffering to grab a bottom-paragraph notice in the news. From a reporter's point of view --- these useless hyenas jammed the phone lines in a disaster, right along with the crackpots wanting to complain about brain waves being beamed at them by microwave towers.
Then there were the ones who'd actually carry out such acts, who were somewhere beneath honest hyenas.
There were no bombs in this case, unless one counted a prior regime that had scanted its geological studies in advance of, of all things, a succession of dams holding back acres of water, rather than hear any single engineer stand up and say, It's not safe.
A failing of courage on this one, for certain. The old regime had moved Grandmother and the peasants of that village off their land to build that monstrosity, and now their meadow was a gullied mudflat. She'd seen it by day and it wasn't a pretty sight --- a mudflat ringed by beautiful snowy mountains and high country villages just melting out from under winter.
The land was badly damaged. Topsoil had gone right down the river and settled on the bottom of the lake, to choke the fish in that lake before it piled up against the next dam and caused problems there.
What made a body of water or air drop its load of particles? Change in energy. The water had to give up energy... and it precipitated silt suspended in it. It had dropped most of it when the flood had hit the lake.
It had also dropped logs, boulders, rocks of every size.
An idea occurred to her as she hovered over the night-shrouded river, in the dismally cold outpouring of a precipitating heaven. She was a heat sink when she stoked up for a major effort, and she didn't draw on an environment that contained living things, because she could do them damage. But in this desolation, she wasn't near things that could be harmed.
To wield power such as she had, one had to think, think hard of consequences, of a chain reaction of events that would follow a chill-down of the river water: fish and shellfish and algae would be the first to be harmed in terms of how fast they processed and reacted to the change in their environment. But fish, vulnerable to sudden changes in temperature, could flee an advancing line of ice water into the warmer, cleaner waters of the lake. The water had undergone chemical change: the thermocline had vanished, as top and bottom layers of the lake had mixed. But that was a fait accompli. And the fish were alive. Bearing cuts and irritated gills and stressed by the temperature change, but alive.
That lake, with all it held, was a resource. It was going to survive, barring the upper flat dumping silt wholesale into it as the water continued to flow from the mountains.
A dredge, which she could manage, could lift the mess back up to the ravaged pastureland. That still wouldn't fix matters: the first rain would bring it down again. But she could get topsoil from somewhere. She could move in trees to provide stable windbreaks, and use whatever rock she scooped up for terracing to prevent the soil from sluicing down the gradient.
She was positively cheerful as she hit the water, and the hungry feeling began to vanish as her energy rose and that in the water around her slowed. She drew in a deep breath and looked at the bottom mud and the stone. She tapped a long fingernail against one of the columnlike bridge pilings beneath the water, a noise that echoed back to her in a picture of the bottom.
There was erosion and there was damage. The pilings nearest the shore had held very well. The bottom had a deep depression in the center that had undercut another, and here was a touchy operation. Heating the area, which might melt and repair the rock, could damage the concrete.
But she could chill down the concrete with a rapid intake and blowing of watery breath and a heavy draw of energy while heat vision concentrated the energy into the igneous rock. She concentrated her heat vision on the rock. Water tried to boil around it and she sucked in and blew out. Rock glowed in the murk like a sullen red sun, extinguished itself against the pillar, and gripped it fast as what had been magma supercooled around it under the gust of her powerful lungs.
That piling wouldn't budge. And the metal reinforcement of the concrete piling, like the concrete itself, hadn't appreciably felt the heat.
It was a transaction she didn't explain to her enemies, or to the merely curious.
But high school physics had landed on her juvenile ears with the same dawning of personal revelation, personal freedom, in the same measure as the revelations of her biology course had begun to offer her a frightening litany of what she wasn't.
Physics --- she loved with a passion. And she studied biology as a list of damage she could do, unthought, if she didn't memorize the stress limits and life requirements of things she dealt with.
Death was a biological problem. And you couldn't undo it once you'd caused it. In nature, things chain-reacted with a vengeance. She knew now that the cold and heat she'd balanced, underwater in a flowing river, was still traveling down river. It was a condition that the fish and algae and the villages that depended on them might survive. The shellfish, in that settling silt, were potentially in trouble, however, and racing along underwater and into the lake down by the hydroelectric dam, she searched the depths for a shellfish bed she blasted clean with a gust of her breath.
You couldn't save all of them. Like nature, you saw that enough would survive to reproduce. And that bed would, if it lived, reproduce and replenish life in the lake, natural filters, every one of those little creatures.
Was there a biologist in reach of the army, to tell her the life requirements of the shellfish and the lake fish and the food chain from the algae up? That would be as helpful as the engineers at the next stage. But people in various regions of the world hadn't grown up as she had, learning to consider that both answers to a situation were as vitally important.
She surfaced, shook herself dry, and streaked back to the tent, only slightly damp --- and scared the drowsy soldiers, who didn't see her coming. Tent walls billowed. Maps flew. But the stakes held. She'd judged that at the very last second, to a nicety.
"I have your information," she began.
"About what?" was the instant question, as military aides holstered guns nervously pulled.
"The pilings are sound," the girl from Krypton said. "Will you call the engineers?"
There was nobody more dangerous.
And Louis Lane couldn't get Lex Luthor out of his mind as he made the boat coming back to the Metropolis shoreline, his hour done, the same as the hours of all the other visitors, sitting, as they all did, on a cheap plastic bench in a heaving boat headed back for the city.
His hands knew what Lex's hands felt like. His mouth remembered her kiss. His heart remembered the glittering world she'd held out to him, consort of one of the most brilliant, most powerful women in the world.
Heads would have turned at the theater, as the two of them came in. The limousine would be waiting at the curb as they went out --- no cabs for this pair to get around town. They'd have had that reservation at The Twelve Tables for the asking. Every night for a week, if they'd wanted it.
That was the glittering life he'd enjoyed for a few giddy weeks. That was the shining future he'd mapped out for himself.
He could get writing done, his logic in those glitzy days of engagement to Lex had told him. If he married Lex Luthor he'd never have to stand in the rain in a sudden shortage of cabs.
That he still looked wistfully toward that life rather like a man looking off a high building and wondering what the wind felt like on the way down --- that worried him. That was stupidity.
He didn't miss Lex. That was the curious thing. He'd wondered how he'd react, seeing her again, and in such circumstances, and now he knew. She could still disturb him; but he didn't have any personal feelings for her --- nothing left but regret, he decided, as the waves thumped and whispered along the hull.
Nothing but a sensual trip, the whole episode of his infatuation with Lex, and who wouldn't want to be rich --- until they counted the cost to their soul?
All in the past, that chance was. He wouldn't ever be rich, no on a reporter's salary. But how could he ever imagined himself in love with Lex? How could he have failed to see the bitter truth in the woman?
The relationship with Lex hadn't been the first goose-egg he'd scored. Romance soared and fizzled. Bliss was just around the corner and then it was an...
What was it a girlfriend had said back in college? An incompatibility of goals.
He was doing all right with his goals, thank you.
He'd done all right for himself in his life.
Until Claire walked into his life and challenged him professionally and until Supergirl blazed across the horizon and threw his entire life into chaos. The business with Lex? That had been everything his parents had valued. Wealth. Money. Power.
And he'd run straight from farm-grown Claire straight into Lex's arms.
Lex had bought out the Planet, and he'd jumped to LNN to take a shot at television.
He'd lost his mind, was what.
He'd cried tears when he'd gotten his old job back, and the gang back, and Claire back, in the refurbished, repurchased Planet. Perry White had forgiven Louis for things Perry didn't even know Louis was responsible for.
The boat bumped up against the dock. Engines backed water and churned as the boat rubbed against the buffers. The passengers got up, and Louis moved from his seat, out the door of the cabin and toward the gangway as they ran it out. He was among the first off the boat, feeling the icy wind off the river bite through his coat with particular chill.
Now he had the dire feeling that Luthor's mind was walking the edge of downright crazy, and that if he'd ever left her mind, he'd just done something very dangerous in providing this woman another contact with him, another focus for her madness.
Harold Cross, of Cross & Associates, had likewise bumped up against Lex's empire. Cross had stood up against a lawsuit and won.
It was worth asking... what kind of man Harold Cross was. He was refusing interviews, so Louis had heard. Reporters had besieged him all day long, in vain.
But Louis Lane might have --- it was a feeling he had all of a sudden --- a key to open that door.
The army was breaking out the bridge-building equipment, on vehicles that growled and struggled with the mud. Supergirl delayed her own work to lift trucks out of the mud and deliver stacks of huge sections to the area closer to the river, which, visible to her in spite of the darkness, was flowing between bare banks of tumbled boulders, logs, and chunks of the failed dam.
The army was going to attempt to cross the river that flowed high and free after the dam break and bring both ends of an already established road back into operation, a road that maintained ties between the whole high country region and the district capital. The alternate route to the lake villages on the north shore of the present mudflat was a precarious track: she'd seen it, and there was no way without literally moving mountains and creating more devastation to bring a decent road through to the high mountain communities.
So the route had to be across the river: a ravaged mess of a river, and one that would be responsive to seasonal changes. The snowmelt which was now running highest gave a good forecast of the future size of that river.
And the bridgehead was being reestablished. Give the army a chance to get those floating sections in operation, and the villages that survived on the former lake might have fresh groceries in a week or so.
Supergirl, meanwhile, had a road to clear and repair. And along with it, a truly major job.
The river was a brown thread in a muddy course. The water from the heights and the former lakebed was still coming down dirty --- in a steady rain.
That could only get worse, if it went unchecked.
But she began her road repair with the borrowing of an army truck she didn't intend to use in the ordinary manner, a truck for which there'd been a fierce argument. She needed it. She was not going to carry rocks one at a time from the mountains to the mudflat of a lakebed. If she damaged the truck, she'd come up with a replacement. Somehow. She promised the head of the motor pool and tracked a permission to the head of the division down in Pyatigorsk.
Clearly the officer who'd posed her that requirement hadn't expected her to attempt it, let alone comply inside half an hour.
She signed the requisition proffered in the uncertain hands of a private. The army insisted on signature... or the harried motor pool officer demanded it, because someone was going to ask him what happened to the truck. And after a trip to Pyatigorsk, it was a small favor.
They were then willing to clear the gate back and let her move the truck. But she wasn't going to take it out in the conventional way, and only requested that the fuel be drained.
Only then did Supergirl take the truck out.
But not out through the gate. Lifting up the rear end of the empty truck, she walked her hands underneath it until reaching the balance point. Straightening up, she hoisted the truck up over her head. Then she took it out, straight up.
It was a convenient flatbed, the way the wagon in the village had been, and more convenient than ferrying an equally available truck up from Pyatigorsk. She took it to the remnant of the road and gathered up rocks from the quake, at the same time eyeing others that might have spent fifty years falling off the mountain and piling up onto the talus heap the road building had left.
She carried the truck up to the start of the mudflat, parked it, improbably, in the middle of the devastation, and plunked those rocks down for a foundation.
With them, she began building a channel, a disgusting business that involved shoving a lot of mud and holding her breath all the while, until she'd rearranged the water flow into a controllable deep channel. She'd spotted, with her thermal vision, the natural flow that reached the lake, and with that load and uncounted others, at speed limited only by the aerodynamics of the truck, she built channels and terraces. Bigger boulders, too big for the truck, some weighing over a hundred tons each, she carried individually, faster, with little regard for aerodynamics.
She might, she supposed, have taken the time to introduce herself to the villages up there and explain to them the source of the miracle that, involving a flying truck and the construction of stone channels, proceeded so rapidly the growth of those channels would look to them like a rapid-motion film, in between the slower, more stately flights of a Russian army truck through the area --- bringing in the loads of rock she needed.
But it took longer to work her way through the maze of local dialect than it did to build a stone bank, and she opted for the work of the building, not the explaining of the work. What she did had to be done, and she didn't distract her attention from her masonrywork, which had to be accurate, and substantial.
Like building a wall. Pa Kent had taught her the knack. Grandpa Kent's rubble walls, built of stones garnered out of the plowed fields before she came to the planet were still standing; and he'd passed it on to his son, who in turn passed had it on to his adopted daughter. Admittedly, she'd had a few larger stones mixed in, and now she was using even larger ones. However, every time she was tempted to say of a bad fit, Good enough, there was a remembered, Fix it now or fix it later, in Pa Kent's voice, to remind her there wouldn't be a "later" in this remote valley. What she did was what these honest farmers and shepherds would have for as long as sheep grazed and crops grew, and the granddaughter Grandpa Kent had never known wasn't going to leave a group of farmers and shepherds to look at her stonework and say, What a sloppy job that American woman did.
No. Do it right the first time. This masonry would hold the banks firm and let grass grow where grass needed to grow, without the gullying and erosion. Sheep and fields would exist here, not the same as they'd been because the very land itself had changed. But she arranged vast areas where she'd dump the silt she'd recover, to provide a firm, level base that wouldn't puddle water to drown seedlings or give sheep foot rot.
Not all dirt was same. Silt was not automatically fertile --- the farmgirl from Smallville knew that. 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.
So she'd try to figure out where she could get topsoil that wouldn't be missed elsewhere. Some construction site was the best bet, soil of a type and consistency that these farmers' traditional methods would best deal with.
That meant black dirt with a remnant of compost from the high pine forest. She'd already made intimate acquaintance of it, in its soggy form.
It was a full day's work, with all the power she could muster, to do the delicate shaping of the canals and channels with borrowed stone; and having located a dredge downriver (another exchange of signatures and promises, this time through a handshake with the town mayor, not a trip to Pyatigorsk), a succession of sloppy trips upstream to the disaster site. She scooped up silt near the dam, and in dripping, messy loads that streamed a nasty mess down near (but not on) the army engineers, she cycled back and forth from a lake she was trying not to roil up too much to a mudflat she was trying to level.
She dumped mud in between the webworks of her canals and channels, mud that she dried to a crust, at least, with a baking of her heat vision and gusts of breath. Like flesh between veins, the land began to fill out, as water, still muddy but a mere seepage through the stones, was squeezed out into the appointed channels.
A ruined land was coming back. A ravaged Mother Earth was healing an unsightly wound.
And it was with vast relief when, by a setting sun and a clearing in the clouds, the girl from Krypton plunged into the chill, clearing water of the lake. She'd been so coated with mud the villagers would have taken her for some strange, compost-covered demon.
He was still a very, very hurt little boy, Billy Anderson was.
But he noted her presence. He made a little wave of his hand.
"He's getting well now," Billy's mother said, in dogged disregard of the lack of response. "He's a lot better today." And Jenny Olsen truly hoped so, and that there really was improvement since the phone call from Billy's parents. But he looked so glum, and it was in its way less than response than she'd seen before.
Come, his parents had asked her. He needs cheering up.
So she'd brought, among other things, a soccer magazine from the newsstand down the street from the Planet, but Billy didn't have the strength to open it. He could scarcely look at the pictures, though he tried to. White light came through the window. Billy always wanted the shades open. He had that much restored interest in the world. But he was still so weak.
Sitting on the bed beside him, Jenny turned the pages for him. There was an open letter in the seam of the magazine. With the letterhead of the Metropolis Meteors, and the signature of Sergio Santos, the man who'd led the hithero struggling Meteors to the top of the National League.
The venture of a small, pale hand, as scabbed over as hers, toward that letter with the shining gold emblem was worth every penny she'd spent --- but it wasn't her gift. At Louis Lane's suggestion, she'd approached Steve Lombard at the sports desk. Lombard had made a phone call, and a world-class soccer player had responded and made another phone call. In a chain of phone calls from very good, very generous people, Billy was going to the whole next Meteors season as the guest of the team captain.
Billy and every member of his soccer team.
Fingers caressed the embossed letterhead. "What's it say?"
"It says, thanks to a really neat guy at the Planet Sports desk, that you and your mom and dad have season passes to the Meteors games. You and your whole team."
"Cool." There was a quaver in the voice. "Way cool."
"And a coaching session for the whole team. How's that?"
The little face fell.
Trouble. Maybe the trouble that had set in and turned Billy so listless and unresponsive that his parents called in a stranger for help.
Her kid. Her kid, on loan again, from two pretty generous parents.
She'd hoped that this would cheer him up. But it obviously hadn't.
She leaned closer. "What's the problem?"
Billy tried not to cry. He hadn't, down in the pit, in danger of his life. Things had just piled up on him, and the chin shook and the eyes leaked despite his best efforts.
It was more than his father and mother could stand. "Billy?" his mother said, trying to take his other hand. But Billy snatched it away.
It didn't take a degree in rocket science.
"You don't want to play again?" Jenny asked.
"Who says you can't?"
"I'm in here! I got stitches all over..."
"They'll come out pretty soon. You'll be good as new, Billy."
"No, I won't." Billy thought he was being conned and he was mad, Jenny judged that. He was also eight years old.
"What does the doctor say?" Jenny asked. She'd talked to the doctor and the parents before she talked to Steve at the Sports desk, and Billy's sudden, unexplained despondency was the central question in the extent and rate of his recovery. "The doctor told us you'd be back on the field this summer. Did he tell you something different?"
"I'll be sick."
"No, you won't."
"I've got stitches."
"When those come out, you'll be as strong as before. Athletes have stitches all the time. Fix a knee, the stitches come out, they're back on the field."
"Not in their middle. They had to take stuff out."
"Nothing you need."
"So why's it in there?"
A young kid's questions were sometimes silent, the speculations far ranging and much grimmer than adults knew.
"Spare parts," she said. "You go and ask your science teacher when you get back to school. But scars can be strong as natural skin, and you won't miss anything they took out. The doctor says so."
"Yeah?" Don't con me was the unspoken plea. The jaw was trying to steady down.
"Promise." He'd stopped listening to her voice in the dark. That time was over. He'd come back to face the world and he'd feared the terms of his existence were going to be narrowed. It wasn't the case for him. "You're lucky," she said. "You're real lucky."
"Is Lenny alive?"
"Everybody on the team made it. I swear." She raised a hand and started to make a crossing motion across her chest before dropping her hand. Cross my heart and hope to die wouldn't be the best thing to say here. "That's the truth," she said instead.
He moved his head enough to cock his head and look up at his parents, on the other side of the bed. For the first time, he looked to his parents, and thought his voice from the dark might be lying to him. "Is that true?"
"Yes," his dad said. "A lot of people died, Billy. Tom Elliot's got two broken legs. And Gene Pratt one. But none of your teammates died. You're just real lucky. A lot of people didn't get the chance you got. So you have to use it. You have to walk out of here."
"Yeah," Billy said.
"You're going to be on the field this summer," his mother said.
"Yeah," Billy said to that, too. And passed his fingers over the Meteors logo on the letter. "This is cool. Thanks."
It was about time for a photographer to remember he wasn't her kid. The kid had come out of the dark. He'd remember her for the rest of his life. He'd be grateful. His kids would be grateful when they heard the story. That was a kind of posterity.
But it was time for her to leave.
"I'd better go," she said to the parents, then leaned over and kissed Billy's forehead.
The parents came out of the room to thank her. The mother hugged her. The father did too. Louis Lane, who had arrived only a few minutes ago, shook hands with the parents.
"Let me take you back to the Planet," Louis offered.
The pair walked down the sterile white hall and took the elevator, empty-handed, down the now-familiar path to the front gate.
She'd had a phone call from the mayor this morning. They wanted to give her the Civic Medal, and they wanted her to attend the awards to all the firemen and policemen, and there was going to be a fundraiser for the expenses of the people caught in the disaster.
She couldn't say no to the fundraiser. But she'd begun to flinch from her personal notoriety. The aftershocks were settling into her nerves now. Maybe it was dreaming about it at night. Maybe it was still seeing that pool of muddy water and the hanging cables, and fighting the cold and the pain to move those chunks of concrete every time her head hit the pillow.
They wanted to give her a medal. She wasn't sure how she was going to get through a speech about what she --- she, the photographer --- couldn't articulate. If she got up in front of a lot of people, she didn't know what she was going to say.
Honor the firemen and policemen, yes. They'd done their jobs, they'd done them magnificently, the way they were trained to do. She'd been lucky, was all, lucky she hadn't met an electric wire, lucky to have been in the right place at the right time, but without the firemen behind her, without the EMT who'd come as far as she could, she didn't want to think about her chances --- or Billy's. She and Billy had become a symbol, a portrait of a disaster that had exacted a cruel, real cost on hundreds of affected people who mustn't be forgotten, and who deserved recognition for their stories, for their courage in that crisis.
That was the speech she'd make. That was what she'd say.
When she got enough sleep. When she wasn't running on adrenaline.
But the mayor's event was tomorrow night. She didn't know where she'd find the strength.
Or the appropriate clothing. She couldn't very well attend such a function in blue jeans and T-shirt.
Supergirl came out clean, filled her lungs with mountain air, and shook the water out of her hair in a showering of drops that caught the sun.
The sunset over the mountains was gold and pink, casting the snow in illusory blues and whites in the shadowed parts. It was a wonderful evening.
She wished she could show Louis. She wished she could hang here in the sky enjoying the view with him.
But the girl from Krypton still had work to do.
Twilight was deepening as she whisked up to the mountainside, from which, in the very far distance, Grandmother and her village might have seen very odd things proceeding, at least in the army advancing across the river. She doubted whether any of them would have seen what she'd done up where the lake had been, the forest being between them and the view of their old home.
But she'd tell them.
So Supergirl hoped.
But the moment she came within sight of the villagers' camp, she had a sense of something wrong; and when she canceled out the daylight to get a thermal picture of the camp, she knew something was wrong. The livestock wasn't in sight. A small campfire was going, and people were there, gathered about its warmth and light, black figures next to the emergency module she'd left the village.
But it was a very small fire, with fewer people than she'd have expected.
She descended and landed close by them, and people reacted with intakes of breath and a flinching from surprise that hadn't been their reaction before.
"Chto eta?" she asked, and Grandmother, sitting with the group, made an effort to rise. Someone had been very rough and careless in the open-ended medical module. The place looked, in fact, stripped.
There were women, children, a handful of old men. No young ones. No livestock.
Grandmother tried to tell her. But the young man who'd done the translating wasn't there to mediate.
She didn't know the words. But she caught a few in Russian. The little girl, the one with the kittens, mimed shooting a rifle.
"Soldiers?" she asked in Russian. The army was across the river. "Bandits?"
Grandmother had a lot to say to that. Leaning on her stick, she gestured toward the mountain and said something about the horse, the wagon, the chickens, and the young men.
And fools and rebels.
Supergirl had the picture then. "Where?" she asked, and everyone talked at once. Some cried, dabbing at eyes surreptitiously. A few maintained a thin-lipped and fearful silence. And a young woman mimed a gun at the head, a shot.
Supergirl got that picture, too. Rebels had taken every resource, robbed the survivors, forced the young men to go with them. The sight by day of the Russian Army advancing on the place had either alarmed rebels existing in the hills and convinced them that they, and not rescue, were the target; or perhaps the rebels had seen first the quake and then this flood-caused severance of the road as an opportunity to take this territory and fight a guerilla war with an army unable to extend a firm supply line to the region.
Bring a large force in, and they might start shooting, possibly beginning with the uncertainly loyal men they'd taken.
"I need clothes," Supergirl said, and took off the cape, rolling it up and tying it around her waist like a thick belt. She bent down and muddied a hand on the trampled ground, wiped mud on her face.
Wise old Grandmother understood. "Clothes!" she exclaimed in the local dialect, and waved her stick. There was protest, and confusion, and Supergirl gathered that the rebels had made off with the spare clothing, too.
But out of the tangled mess of their baggage, the women found a pair of aged, muddied trousers to cover Supergirl's skirt and bare legs. An arthritic old man of considerable girth contributed a plaid flannel shirt, which, with the cape around her waist served to hide her feminine shape. Another old man donated a woolen cap under which she could hide her long golden hair. "Son" was one word Supergirl could understand out of the old man's dialect: the old man wanted his son back alive, and would have stripped to the skin in a snowbank to accomplish that.
There was distress among the women because there were no guns. One woman offered a kitchen knife from among the folds of her skirts.
"Nyet," Supergirl said, "spaciba." Shoes were a problem. But the old man provided those, too, heavy boots that had seen a lot of walking, and fit over her own boots.
Then she had the most complicated matter to explain, and rendered it down to, "Grandmother, please come..." and a gesture to the mountains above them.
She pointed aloft and up toward the hills, nothing daunted, a figure as old as the mountains, with her kerchief and her thick skirts and her walking stick; and she was light as a feather when Supergirl swept her up in her arms and took to the skies, Grandmother and what might appear to be a young man flying through the night air in a scene that (it occurred to Supergirl) might have come from fairy tales.
She flew low and slowly, partly not to burn Grandmother's skin and partly because it wasn't easy to shift from a lifetime of seeing the mountains from one perspective and, instantly and in the dark, locate something from the air.
Grandmother followed trails by starlight, followed them, for her experience, probably very fast indeed.
"There, there, there!" she said, pointing with her cane as their winding course around the shoulder of the mountain revealed a wooded nook and the faint gleam of a fire.
It was a camp, and a fairly permanent one. Supergirl didn't know when the raid might have happened, but she'd bet the rebels had been lurking about, perhaps even known to the villagers, until they saw the army advancing faster than they could explain.
Then they'd grown alarmed, seized everything they could, and made their way back to this camp, half a day away, she figured, using the horse and wagon to get the pigs and chickens to their camp.
The chickens, clearly, had met an unhappy fate: they were roasting on spits in the midst of men dressed not much differently than she was, except they had coats.
She set Grandmother down very gently on the trail where she could feel she knew her way; and Supergirl set herself down much closer to the camp before she began to walk at a sedate pace toward the firelight.
She could see the horse, the wagon, the pigs. Piles of medical supplies. And some of the men at the fire had guns and some didn't. The ones who didn't --- she recognized. Including her young interpreter, Dimitri.
Two men, standing, had guns in their hands. Sentries, she thought, and kept walking.
Suddenly the majority had guns in their hands as one man saw her and jumped up, some pointing guns at her, others at the villagers in their midst, and clearly inclined to use them.
She shambled toward that bristling cluster of men by the fire, gave a deprecatory wave of her hand, and didn't resist when two came and grabbed her.
They treated her like a man; likely in the gloom, they couldn't tell otherwise. They shook her, they yelled into her face, they clearly wanted to know who she was and whether she was an army spy. They spoke to her in Russian, which wasn't their language, but which they thought was hers.
They shoved guns into her face and they threatened her and she made herself loose-jointed and stumbled when they shoved her. "Speak up," they said to her, clearly imagining they had a spy from the army, and meanwhile her greatest concern was the couple of men who prudently had weapons leveled at their new recruits, prepared to blow them to eternity if they made a move.
The leader, so he seemed to be, grabbed her by her shirt and shook her, shouting into her face with bad breath.
A gun barrel hit her head. She took her cue and fell down. And was kicked several times.
Meantime she was waiting for a little moment of distraction. Blow up the ammunition? She could do that. But they were primed to shoot the local lads and might do just so if sufficiently frightened.
She suffered a few more kicks, and assumed a listlessness that she hoped would put them a little off their guard.
A kick dislodged her woolen cap, allowing her long golden hair to spill out. That stopped the kicks as they realized they had captured a female. Voices were raised in surprise.
She saw her interpreter's face and knew, then, that lad at least realized keenly who she was.
The bandits didn't expect a woman to move laterally from dead rest on the ground; they didn't expect the move, too fast for human eyes, that grabbed the two rifles aimed at the recruits, crushed the barrels, and sent them off into the trees at such high velocity they probably embedded. They certainly didn't expect a presence fast enough to stop automatic weapons fire aimed at her and the recruited villagers.
Normally she would have enjoyed letting the bullets hit her, but she didn't want to damage her borrowed clothes, as old and worn as they already were. More importantly, she did not want to risk stray ricochets off her invulnerable body hitting anyone else's not-so-invulnerable body, especially those of her villagers. Moving faster than the bullets, she collected them all into a wad, every single one. Coming to a halt and in grim humor, she dropped a baseball-sized lump of warm metal on the ground in front of her, the result of her collection.
Then it dawned on the rebels that they were in serious trouble. They let off a concentrated burst from several guns as the erstwhile recruits, finally having some notion of what they were dealing with and who had come into the fray, dived for cover behind the nearest rocks.
Relieved of concern for the villagers, she again neatly fielded all the shots, gathered herself another baseball, and this time tossed it over her shoulder at the mountain with a flick of her wrist. It boomed from the impact alone, showered down rock chips as if a cannonball had struck --- one had, only harder --- and that was enough. The rebels finally broke and ran.
She wasn't quite ready to let them leave just yet. She streaked after the fleeing bandits, ripped guns out of hands, out of holsters, crushed them, and sent every firearm flying. The forest resounded to splintering impacts and screams of men who thought their unprotected bodies would go next.
Supergirl didn't need to do more than that. They'd fled opposite to Grandmother's position, past the horse, who'd tried to bolt, and a lot of startled pigs who were still squealing in their crate. Stripping off her borrowed garments and restoring her cape, she whisked back to where she had left Grandmother.
The girl from Krypton found the old woman from the village plodding her slow way toward the fracas, doubtless with a notion of bringing her cane into the fray.
No need for explanations: seeing was easier. Supergirl swept Grandmother up and deposited her by the fire, where they were instantly the focus of a rush of grateful and anxious ex-recruits. They hugged Grandmother. And Supergirl, once she'd brushed the dried mud off her face.
They'd regained the horse, the wagon, a crateful of pigs, Grandmother's cow, and the roasting chickens looked about done. If they were to lose the source of eggs, there was no sense letting the sacrifice be in vain.
The rebels, Dimitri judged, wouldn't try another recruitment. Not in this area of the mountains.
Supergirl had gotten the livestock back before they were revolutionary rations. They all, as soon as they got the horse hitched to the primitive shafts with its makeshift bandit harness, were going back down the mountain to the camp, with Grandmother sitting on the wagon like it was a throne, her stick in her lap like a scepter.
And in the remote chance the rebels might be lured back by the ammunition they'd abandoned... Supergirl returned the borrowed clothes, got the wagon and the young men headed back to the villagers' camp, saw them around the shoulder of the mountain and out of the way, and set the ammo off.
It was a satisfactory explosion. It was particularly satisfying to know it made a nice beacon, it started no fires in the damp woods, and it wouldn't find its way against and into vulnerable human bodies. Lives wouldn't be wrecked. Children wouldn't be orphaned. People wouldn't be killed or maimed.
It was especially satisfying since she had been standing in the middle of it when she set it off. The little fragments of metal pinging off her face and body gave her a good tingle. Even better was the heat released by the explosion. It warmed her up and helped replenish her depleted energy reserves.
She then went and met the little party for a good bye. She wasn't through with the reclamation of the land, but the army had the bridge making in hand, which would at least stabilize the region. She'd just scared the rebels out of the district, so there was little chance of an army operation turning up anything that was going to start a shooting war on top of people's other problems.
Stealing relief supplies --- not just enough for their own survival, but making people destitute and recruiting them at gunpoint --- didn't recommend their cause to her, not even for the neutrality she tended to observe in a nation's differences of opinion. Banditry was banditry. She knew that when she saw it in operation and had no qualms about sending the perpetrators off into a damp night without their supplies or weapons.
Supergirl had told Grandmother, as well as she could through her young interpreter, that she'd begun restoration of their land where the lake had been. And that she'd be back. She trusted them to get down the road the bandits had taken up to this camp, with all that they'd lost plus the bandits' leavings.
But meanwhile, the girl from Krypton had a city of her own in crisis.
Louis Lane hadn't escorted Jenny Olsen through the gauntlet of reporters getting into the hospital since they had arrived separately. Now they were leaving together so he escorted her out... but the reporters were few in number now.
"Louis!" one said, and slipped him a note as they were getting into the cab.
Carmen Alverado would like both of you to do a studio interview for Nightscape. Please call.
Jenny merely shook her head when he showed her the scribbled note, and slumped against his shoulder.
He didn't know what he had to say to a television interviewer. He wasn't news. He reported it.
There wasn't much to report right now except that the investigation into the cause was continuing and that a bomb had been ruled out, that the survivors were improving and the dead had been buried.
It was that shocky just-after week for the event that had shaken the city and the nation. The fervor for more information was seething out there, a city, a nation, the world still stirred up and still clamoring for information; but information wasn't forthcoming and it couldn't, by reputable newsmen, be manufactured.
So the tabloids ran riot on the stands. So he'd heard from Perry when he'd called in. He hadn't seen them, but several of the scandal sheets were represented in the stakeout at the hospital, and they'd snapped a lot of pictures of him and Jenny that he'd rather not have given them.
But he didn't know what else they could do. They couldn't hide.
He'd have liked to go to the parking garage and have a look at the deep basement. But he wasn't ready for that, and he wasn't ready to lead other reporters to the pieces of a story he wanted to write. He'd not met morning deadline. Perry wasn't upset. Too much. Perry didn't blame him for a shaky couple of days.
"I'm working on something," he'd said.
It happened to be the truth. But the pieces of it hadn't been easy to get.
Records on one William Smalley. Suicide, alone in his apartment.
Records on one Monique Simms. Suicide. Found floating in the river.
The cab wove through traffic, and the driver complained about a bus pulling out in front of him --- just the luck of the traffic. They were going slower, now, with no view but a huge silver bus end.
"You're that photographer," the driver said, looking into the rearview mirror.
"I am," Jenny said, wearily. Louis could see that it embarrassed her. But she was "That Photographer" to every cabby, every shopper in the city.
"Pretty neat thing you did."
"Pretty horrible, that place." The cabby wanted to talk about it. They were prisoners in the cab. They listened to his theories on bombs and terrorists while they rode on in the wake of the bus.
Louis had the cabby wait while he escorted Jenny into the safety of the Planet Building. Returning to the cab, he then asked to be taken to an office plaza that was a long cab ride away, a long, long run to the expressway, the cabby continuing to spew forth theories. He had the surly feeling, watching the numbers ticking away on the meter, that he should be charging the cabby instead of the other way around.
The cabby exited the expressway. And Louis knew when he saw the office park --- and the LNN dish --- that it was going to be a scene. He had his cell phone. He had the number of Cross & Associates. And dialed it.
"This is Louis Lane," he said to the woman who asked his business.
"Mr. Cross isn't available. I'm sorry."
"Will you ask Mr. Cross? Tell him my name. I'd like to speak to him for just a moment."
"If this is about an interview, Mr. Cross isn't giving interviews."
"Please tell him I'm from the Daily Planet. I'd like to talk to him for just a moment."
In the windshield of the cab the building and the gathering out front were dead center.
"What is your name? I'm sorry."
"Lane. Louis Lane." He had a hole card and he played it. "Tell him I was the reporter in the Madison."
"One moment, please."
Clearly the receptionist was stressed. And this might be a wasted trip. But he hadn't yet played all his cards. He didn't want to play them --- on the phone --- being aware that there might be an illegal interception of the phone call. There were sharks in the waters. Clearly. They could track where he'd come from. But they couldn't get out to Stryker's Island in time for the next edition and they couldn't duplicate the interview he'd had out there. He was, this time, ahead of them. And if there was one name that might open Cross's door...
"Mr. Cross will see you. But no one else."
"I agree," he said, and almost wished he hadn't left Jenny back at the Planet. But he didn't think he could get her in, anyway. And he wouldn't blame Cross for not wanting to have his face plastered all over the front page.
He'd given the cabby the address. The cab entered the driveway and pulled up into the army of reporters, negotiating it slowly, with frequent complaints and swearing from the driver.
He paid the fare and a good tip, with a dismissal, before he stepped out of the cab into a mass of his colleagues, at least half of whom he recognized. Prominent among them was LNN's Frank Borden. The two of them had worked together briefly during Louis' ill-fated attempt at switching from print to electronic journalism. Since then they had remained friends of a sort in an often cutthroat business.
"Hello," Frank said.
"Hi," Louis answered, and had microphones shoved at him, so thick he couldn't brush past them.
"What's the story on Cross?" vied with, "What's your reaction to the Star's reports on Cross and the mayor?"
His answers had to be, "What report on Cross? --- Excuse me!" A microphone bumped his ear. Reporters were shoving at each other, jostling him, worse than usual with an interview; he was usually one of the pack, and they gave him not an inch of slack.
"Back up," Borden shouted, trying to get Louis some room. He was glad and grateful for that, and Borden said, "I'd like to do an interview on our mobile link, if you don't mind."
Cameras were a little in abeyance, and microphones were to the side, seeing that he hadn't broken a story for them on the spot. He didn't want to do an interview. That question on Cross troubled him. Yes, Cross had done contracts for the city and the Daily Star was a newspaper that favored the mayor's often agitated opposition. The whole business smelled of dirty politics getting into the act.
And coming from the hospital and the personal side of the story, as he'd just done, he was mad.
"Not now," he said. "I'm not the news, for God's sake. Go interview the fire department. Go interview the guys who were down there."
"Is it true," another reporter asked, "that you're still involved with Lex Luthor?"
His heart stopped. And restarted. Temper almost choked him.
"What about that story?" Frank asked. "Is it true you were out at Stryker's Island yesterday?"
What could he say? His face, seen on dozens of cameras in the last few days, probably registered too much. Cameras clicked. The red eyes of news cameras were all around him.
"I was following your lead, Frank. It was your lead, wasn't it? LNN had the story."
"But the prison authorities let you in," Frank said. "They didn't let us in. Why do you suppose that was? Luthor agreed to see you?"
"What did Luthor say?" someone shouted.
"Excuse me." Louis gave a shove at Frank, the traitor, and headed for the doors, experienced in the journalistic crush and expecting no help from the security guards he could see beyond the glass doors of the office building. They weren't about to open that door and risk a human wave sweeping through the lobby.
He reached the door and showed his press credentials.
As someone tried to give him a tape recorder. "Ten thousand dollars," that man said, jabbing it at his ribs. "Ten thousand if you get a tape of Cross."
He shot a drop-dead glance at the man and didn't take the tape recorder. About that time a guard, one of several, unlocked the door and let him in as his cohorts held the mob from rushing in.
Louis didn't complain about the lack of rescue outside. But his neatly pressed suit was creased, a scab on his knuckle was bleeding, and he didn't want to think about his hair. It made him grateful to be a print journalist and not a television reporter.
The newspaper dispensers just inside the building held the day's headlines. From the Star: Where Was Supergirl?
He couldn't stop to read it. He walked the travertine marble floor to the elevators in the close company of a pair of the security guards, almost as tight a security as at Stryker's Island. He didn't look back, but he imagined his colleagues' faces glaring jealously at his back.
A woman in a beige pantsuit shot him a sullen look as she exited the elevator. People in the hall had glum faces. Cross wasn't the only business in this place, and doubtless the other businesses and all their clients wished Cross were miles away and all reporters sunk in the harbor.
High time, he said to himself, running a hand over his hair, high time to get the business settled, one way or the other, whether it was an engineering mistake or something else.
And yes, he thought as he exited the elevator on the nineteenth floor, it would be a good idea to talk to the investigators, too, and try to parlay what he did know into information coming from them. But for very good reasons, the investigators weren't talking: he'd tried this morning, and so had every other reporter in town, for days.
In the meantime either damage or justice was being done to the reputation of the architect and engineering firm, and the stories hitting the newsstands in the city and front lawns in the suburbs were already talking about the mayor and the fact that Cross & Associates had built a number of very significant city buildings.
He walked in through glass doors stenciled in gold with the Pyramid and X of Cross & Associates, nice logo, beautiful offices, blue and gray, an anxious receptionist who lost no time in showing him into the inner hall, and into an office with corner windows, a magnificent view of the Metropolis skyline and the river (though Stryker's Island was, thankfully, out of view), and a red-faced, balding, gentle-looking man who rose and offered his hand. Louis remembered him from the recent dedication ceremony for the new Arts Center, which his company had designed and built. The two men hadn't had spoken at that event.
"Mr. Cross. I was a little surprised, considering the crowd out there, that you'd see me. Thank you."
"I've read your work. I know you'll be fair. That's all I ask, Mr. Lane."
"I intend to be fair."
Cross was an anxious man, even an indignant one. Louis never trusted the innocent look. He didn't even trust indignation. The reason con men worked so well was that they looked completely credible right down to the little signs, the shake in the hands, the distraught manner, the sadness in perfectly credible eyes.
He was after facts, not feelings.
"Mr. Lane, my life is being ruined. They're outside my house, the trucks, the whole circus. My phone is ringing with threats, my wife is terrified..."
"I can sympathize," Louis said, and truly could, but wouldn't. "Let's get at the facts here. Is there a chance it was a roof failure the way they're saying, or what do you think happened? For the record, Mr. Cross."
"Honestly," Harold Cross said, and it was the face of a tired, soul-searching man, to all observations. "Honestly, I've been over the blueprints. I've double-checked our records, our orders, our materials, ever since that building came down, Mr. Lane. Can you understand how it felt, that morning, knowing something I'd built had come down on those people?"
"What did you think when you heard it?" It was a journalistic question, and he thumbed the switch on the recorder in his suit pocket and set it on the desktop, plainly evident to Cross, and protecting them both from mistaken quotation. "What was your first thought?"
It wasn't a glib answer. The thought process took a second. "My first thought? My first thought was, This can't happen."
Louis was closer to believing what he was hearing. "Why not?"
"I still have the model, Mr. Lane. Do you want to see it?"
"Yes, please. I'd very much like to see it."
Cross got up from his desk and led the way into an adjacent room, where numerous models lined the top of tall bookcases.
The model of the hotel stood on the reading table, conspicuous. It was eerie to look at, whole and undamaged.
Cross laid hands on the model and moved half of it aside, showing the floors in cross section.
The support structure was exactly what Lex had described. A pyramid, upside down. But not just one pyramid. There were braces set into the outside walls, going the opposite way. His eye could see the support and the integrity of the building, even if he'd had only a smattering of architecture in a college Art Appreciation course. But he had only had smattering of architecture, and therefore he kept a caution tag on his judgment of what he saw: a model was one thing. When scale and change of materials entered the picture --- he knew that much --- the equations changed.
Cross proceeded to point out what he'd already seen. And spread out on the table pictures, details of actual construction. Then he drew out of a vertical cabinet a set of blueprints, with the marks of use about them. "These are the actual ones," he said, and that seemed very credible.
He brought out materials samples, and talked about grades and qualities. He brought out manuals showing the numbers which meant less to Louis than he wished they did, but Cross offered to show them to any expert of the Planet's choosing and at no point acted as if expected Louis couldn't follow him to his conclusions. He wasn't thinking about lawyers, and Louis wasn't dealing with a man with glib answers, only ready and thorough ones.
He wanted his story out there. And the question was whether the Planet was going to go out with a story supporting Cross & Associates' integrity.
Talk about trial by media.
"Did you talk to any reporter directly?"
"By phone. Yes. But they wanted to know about my credentials. Those are my credentials." The wall of the office had been lined with certificates and photographs. This room, with its models of a good many major buildings of Metropolis, these were the credentials Harold Cross invoked, and he rattled off his professional associations as both architect and engineer with scarcely a pause for conscious thought.
Then he said, this tired, ruddy-faced man, "Mr. Lane, call your experts. Call anybody you like. My reputation is everything. I've had two contracts fall through. My crews are being harassed. I had a man who's worked for me twenty years quit on me because he's scared for his kids and people are ringing his phone at night. I've got a building with the foundations dug sitting at a standstill. I've had more death threats than I can count and my e-mail's with the FBI. My wife is on tranquilizers and I'm next. I don't know what to do, Mr. Lane. I'm being killed in the press."
"Are you talking to the investigators?"
"I'm providing them copies of everything. Delivery records. Receipts. I put quality into that building! And there's no flaw in that design."
"Let me two say two words to you."
If a face that ruddy could go white, it tried.
"What were your dealings with her?" Louis asked. "Were they friendly?"
"She's in prison. Isn't she?"
"Did she ever threaten you?"
An intake of breath. "You know Lexcorp sued Premier over the contract for the Madison."
"I got threats. Phone calls. Never the same party."
"What did they sound like? What did they want?"
"Just --- pull out of the contract. Your wife will die. There'll be an accident. That sort of thing. I've had them before."
"Did you ever deal with Lex Luthor?"
"Not directly. Not pleasantly. Then --- when they thought she was dead and we got into the lawsuit..." Clearly it wasn't a pleasant memory. Cross gave a twitch of his shoulders, a visible shiver, gazing at something in the past. "I got a phone call at three in the morning. A woman's voice. And it was something like, You won't last in this city. And then she hung up. You know how it is... I was half asleep, I was still waking up. Things weren't registering clearly. But it sounded like a voice I knew. And it took me a week to remember a cocktail party a long time ago. Ms. Luthor said it. Just brushed by --- said that and walked off with a champagne glass in her hand. That was what I remembered. And she was supposed to be dead when I got that phone call. It was spooky, it was spooky as hell."
"What did you think when he turned up alive?"
"I thought I was real glad she's in prison."
"A lot of us are glad," Louis said, with personal reason to say so, and wondered if Cross connected him to the reporter Lex Luthor had been about to marry.
He hadn't wanted to cover the Lexcorp mess. He hadn't wanted his byline anywhere near Lex's business dealings.
Monique Simms had covered it.
"Let me say another name to you. William Smalley."
A frown. "Worked for me three months."
"Testified against you in the lawsuit."
"Competent at his job?"
"I checked his credentials real carefully. And he came in with references. I can show you the employee folder."
"Employee, not a partner."
"No way he was a partner. He was good at what he did. I hired him because I was sorry for him. Run of hard luck. Nasty divorce. The Madison contract came up with a rush on it and we needed the extra hands." A pause. A hesitation. "Those things he said weren't true and we proved it to the client. I think he was a plant. I think he was somebody working for Lexcorp. And I fell for it."
"You know he's dead."
"Suicide. That's what they said."
"So's the reporter who covered the case. Monique Simms. Suicide."
Louis met the man's worried look with one he knew couldn't reassure him that he thought it was all a coincidence.
The recorder had run out of tape five minutes ago. He'd heard it click off.
"Thank you," he said, leaving matters at that grim point of insupportable hypothesis, and wished again that Jenny were here. He had a small camera he used in desperation. But there were professional photos scattered all over the table. "Could you provide me with a photo of the model? The cross section? Our staff artists could use it."
Cross swept one up, rejected it, selected another, larger one, and handed it over. "Print it, use it, just --- write the truth. I've nothing to fear from the truth, Mr. Lane."
Louis didn't think he had. He wished he knew, on the other hand, what the truth was.
He wished he knew more of what she'd come here to find: the specific cause of the collapse.
But he was sure enough to tell Perry that he had an interview the tabloids would pay in the five figures for, and he knew Perry. If he thought they had the truth, the Planet would set the standard. They were going to go head-to-head with the other news organizations over the Cross story.
"I'd be real careful," Louis said, "between you and me. I'd be real careful for a while. I don't think either case was suicide. But it would be real hard to prove."
"You know something?" Cross asked, lowering his voice conspiratorially.
Louis shook his head. "If I knew anything, my next stop would be the police. But I don't know. And I can't prove anything. Just --- be careful."
"Thank you. And you be careful, Mr. Lane."
He led a charmed life where Lex Luthor was concerned. He'd heard it in that moment of alarm, when she'd believed he'd been in danger. Lex wouldn't kill him.
No one else on Earth could say that. And even he couldn't depend on it... for ten minutes running, or in Lex's next flight of madness.
"I will be careful," he said.
"Security will get you a cab," Cross said. "I'd walk you down myself, but..."
"I don't think it would be a good idea, your going down there. Is there a phone number where I can always reach you? Would you trust me with it?"
Cross wrote a number on a business card. "Any hour," he said. "At any hour."
"Thank you, Mr. Cross." Louis pocketed the card. "Thank you very much."
"By the way, Mr. Lane," Cross said with a trace of a smile, "aren't you the person Supergirl asked to help her with that wrecking ball at the Arts Center dedication?"
Louis couldn't help blushing a little at the memory. "Yes, that was me."
"I'd welcome her help, but I doubt there's anything she can do about this."
"I'm sure she'll do what she can, Mr. Cross."
The building security guards had the cab at the curb, and this time, on Cross's orders Louis had no doubt, escorted him to the cab past a horde of his colleagues shouting at him and cameras going as they opened the door for him.
He could imagine the video footage as he got in. He foresaw reports on the evening news that Louis Lane had been meeting secretly with Harold Cross --- and he had to beat them with the evening edition. He trusted Frank Borden's integrity, but he was all too aware now that he was news, and that if they hadn't anything else they'd go with clips of faces they did have. They needed visuals. Any visuals.
And he hadn't handled those questions well when he went into the offices to talk with Cross. They'd taped him stammering over his answers about Lex Luthor. They'd taped his reluctance to talk on his way out after talking with Cross.
"The Daily Planet," he told the cabby and leaned back in his seat.
The cab pulled away from the curb, and past the driver's shoulder he had a view, in the rearview mirror, of a disgruntled lot of reporters --- Frank Borden foremost of the lot.
A solitary young man, perhaps in his late teens, dressed in black jeans, white T-shirt, black leather jacket, and reversed baseball cap pulled down tight, zipped along the sparsely-populated sidewalk on his skateboard. As he rounded a corner and overtook a middle-aged woman, he swerved toward her, reached out and snagged the purse off her shoulder, and continued rolling down the sidewalk, increasing his speed as if he was trying to outpace the woman's indignant outburst.
He didn't get very far.
As he reached the middle of the block, a young blond woman suddenly appeared, stepping out of the alley. As he swerved to avoid her, a sudden gust of wind seemed to catch his skateboard. The air somehow got under the board and flipped it over. The man hung momentarily in midair before coming down --- surprisingly lightly considering his speed and the suddenness of his fall --- on all fours. The skateboard bounced in one direction before coming down on its wheels and rolling away, the purse fell in the other.
Before the young man could recover either his skateboard or the purse, the young woman stepped past him. Tucking her own purse under one arm, she stooped to pick up the other purse. A few quick steps then took her to meet the other woman, who was rushing up as quickly as she could in a vain effort to catch up with the skateboarder. Returning the purse to its rightful owner, the young woman waved off the older woman's expressions of gratitude.
The young man had gotten back up. Eyeing the two women warily, he recovered his skateboard, remounted, and sped off.
Claire Kent watched him round the corner, then started walking the other way, toward the Daily Planet. The girl from Krypton was confident that the young man wouldn't be snatching any more purses for a while.