As Lois reached the door of the plane, she hesitated a moment before stepping out into the spotlight. Deciding to come to this world on an impulse was one thing. Becoming a public spectacle was quite another.
She stepped back into the darkness of the plane and gestured for the person behind her to step outside. One after the other the people began filing out of the plane. There wasn’t much luggage; Most of the passengers’ luggage had been left behind in Lois’s version of Washington D.C. scattered among dozens of forensics laboratories. There hadn’t been time to gather it all.
At least these people had homes to go back to. Lois smiled to Lucy as she passed. At Lucy’s expression she shook her head. She began heading for the back of the plane, which was open to the sky.
Clark was waiting for her.
“There aren’t any cameras back here,” he said. As the pilot and co-pilot stepped outside the plane to the roar of the cheering crowd, Clark took Lois in his arms, spread his new cape as wide as it would go, and he flew straight into the air. He could hear a few gasps in the audience but was reassured that all they saw was the back of him. It was good that Lois was so much smaller and fit so comfortably in his arms.
A moment later they were above Metropolis and heading into their new lives.
“As far as Perry is concerned, I’ve been investigating the gunrunner story that killed your counterpart. I got stuck in the hold of a cargo ship and have been stuck out in the Atlantic for several days.”
“Bringing me back with you ought to make it all seem a little more plausible,” Lois said.
Clark had already flashed into his apartment and cleaned. He’d changed clothes too. Finally being in his own clothes again after all this time felt Amazing.
Lois glanced up the small set of stairs. “You have a balcony back there?”
“Not much of a view…perfect for sitting and reading in the sun…or flying in unannounced.”
The heavy pounding on the door made them both jump slightly. Had they already been discovered? A quick glance through the door caused Clark’s heart to sink.
Wordlessly Lois stepped through the doorway into Clark’s bedroom. Clark’s heart sank. It wasn’t going to look very good.
Opening the door, he planted a false smile on his face and said softly, “Hey, Lana.”
He hated the way his shoulders were instinctively slumping and his tone of voice changing, becoming more deferential. Lana had spent years molding him into who she wanted him to be, and it was difficult to overcome that immediately.
“Don’t hey me!” she said, her nasal southern twang jarring his ear after a week adjusting to Lois’s more northern accent. “Where the hell have you been for the past week?”
“I’ve been in another universe,” he said quietly. There wasn’t any point in trying to lie to her. Lana knew enough to ruin any chance he would ever have at a normal life.
“Don’t lie to me!” she said. “I saw that stunt you pulled at the ball park. What were you thinking? Now you are going to have to work twice as hard to hide.”
“I’m not going to hide any more,” Clark said. He forced himself to stand straighter, summoning a little of the feeling he had while he was wearing the suit. “I’ve got important things to do with my life.”
She stared at him for a moment, incensed and for the first time since he’d known her, speechless.
“What can you possibly have to do that’s more important than our life together?” Lana asked. “Prance around in some sort of circus costume acting like a freak?”
“He has to save the world, one life at a time,” Lois said evenly. She stood in the doorway to the bedroom with an unreadable expression on her face.
“Who is this?” Lana asked. She glanced from Lois’s face to Clark’s and then back again. “Why is she here?”
“Lana,” Clark said, “We need to talk.”
Sleeping at Clark’s had been a little uncomfortable. This was his place, with a bed that smelled a little of him and every possession was a little reminder of who he was.
They were taking it slow by unspoken mutual consent. The breakup with Lana was too new and raw to try anything just yet and this was too important to get wrong.
Clark had spent most of the night making sure he put in appearances as Superman anyway. The lack of Internet or twenty four hour news was disconcerting, but the news was full of reports of Clark’s rescues.
He’d decided to make a big splash immediately, to keep the government from covering everything up.
This government didn’t even try. Within twenty four hours the passengers were already being released. They weren’t even required to stay in quarantine, something Lois felt was a mistake.
Even in the short time she’d been here she was feeling a disconnection. Although superficially things were the same, the details were different. There were no Wal-Marts here; only something called Cost-mart.
Being taken shopping for clothes by Clark had been informative. Brands were different. There were designers she’d never even heard of, and some she’d thought essential were missing.
No one walked down the street talking on their cell phone.
There were no twenty four hour news networks here, although Lex News was apparently considering making the transition.
There were less than twenty channels and some of the shows were quite different than what she’d remembered.
In many ways it was an alien world. Everything seemed strange and new.
Yet when she looked at Clark, that feeling of disconnection faded and she felt like she was home, as though she belonged.
“Are you sure about this?” Lois asked.
They were standing outside an unfamiliar house in the suburbs, and Lois’s stomach clenched. It was one thing to know that you had alternate versions of your parents in another world. It was another to knock on a door and confront them.
The thought that they might reject her because she wasn’t their daughter was paralyzing.
“Lucy is with them,” Clark said. He looked good in his charcoal suit. He reached out and took her hand, squeezing it a little. “This is a gift…If I could see my own parents again…”
Lois nodded slightly and squeezed his hand in return. With the other she reached out and knocked on the door.
It took a moment for the door to open, a moment in which Lois felt her knees weaken. She’d faced gunfire in Iraq that had made her less nervous than this.
When the door finally opened, Lois heard a gasp as she stared at an older version of the woman who had raised her. A moment later she was enveloped in an embrace so tight she could barely breathe.
It was good to be home.
Filthy and deserted, the alley was the perfect place for Clark to change into his suit and fly. His counterpart had told him to always be on the lookout for safe places to change, and this one seemed as good as any.
Everything was falling into place. Dr. Ledderman was enjoying his newfound celebrity status as the only human from another universe. He wasn’t likely to jeopardize that by admitting that he was one of two.
Better yet, everyone seemed to be assuming that Superman had come from that other universe. With Clark Kent having a life history in this world, it made his secret identity just a little more plausible.
Even the other passengers seemed to believe it. Clark suspected that a few of them knew more than they were telling. He’d seen a couple of sharp looks when he’d appeared at the press conference as himself. Yet somehow they all seemed to have an unspoken pact not to talk about what had happened.
In a world without You Tube and tabloids paying outrageous sums for gossip, people were more polite and genteel.
Of course, the fact that he could throw an airplane might have had something to do with some of their silence. Clark tried not to think about that. There was an implicit threat by his very existence that he worked every day to deny.
Lois thought everyone was treating him with kid gloves because they were afraid he would go away.
Even Lana was keeping quiet. Clark had always known that she’d been ashamed of his alien heritage. The last thing she wanted was to become fodder for the National Inquisitor. “I had an alien’s love child.”
Lana would keep his secret, if only to preserve her own reputation.
Clark began to spin, changing clothes faster than the human eye could see. His capes were lasting longer these days, since his talks with his counterpart, but he’d probably have to have some replacements made.
As he lifted into the air, he heard the pile of newspapers behind the dumpster move. Clark grimaced; he was going to have to be more careful if he was going to keep this secret identity thing.
A pair of rheumy eyes peered out from a ski cap and a massive amount of clothes. “Are you an angel?”
Clark blinked. “Cyrus?”
“You know me?”
“In another world,” Clark said. He dropped to the ground and held out his hand. “Let me help you.”
Clark didn’t know how things were going to turn out. All he had was faith that it would turn out for the best.
Cyrus reached out and took his hand, and Clark smiled suddenly. “Everything is going to be all right.”
A moment later they were gone.
Stepping out of the shadows, the small man in the Victorian outfit sighed. He wasn’t needed here any more than he was in the other world. It was enough to make him feel old and useless.
He’d done well enough with the Lois and Clark of his own universe. Picking up a hitchhiker from the future hadn’t been the best idea, but he’d managed to stop Tempus from killing Superman as a baby and everything had turned out in the end.
He’d done Tempus a favor, really. Being trapped in a causality loop wasn’t a fate he’d wish on anyone.
Killing Superman as a baby would have meant that Tempus had never heard of Superman…which would have meant he never went back in time to kill Superman as a baby. That would in turn mean Superman did exist, which would mean Tempus would go back…
Trapped in a paradox, Tempus would have been trapped forever in an unending loop, unable to move forward and doomed to forever repeat the same mistakes over and over.
It was the great limitation of time travel, and the one the small man regretted the most.
An entire world gone up in flames, and now that he knew about it, there was nothing he could do to change it.
H.G. Wells had invented the time machine to make a difference, and ironically he’d only then discovered just how helpless he really was.
Yet there was a difference between changing events and making sure that certain things happened. Smiling slightly, the little man headed back into the alley for his time machine. There was one last thing he could do for the Superman of this world.
“A bald villain was good for one story, Joe,” Jerry said. “But we need a hook to keep the readers. We can’t keep writing about a bad guy.”
The two boys sat huddled together at the counter nursing their ice cream floats and hoping the soda jerk wouldn’t kick them out. Times were hard with the Depression.
At the age of nineteen, they’d actually sold a story, but money was tight and nobody was buying their mimeographed fanzine. There had to be a way to make money from science fiction.
A voice from the end of the counter said, “So write about a hero.”
The voice was British, and the man who stood up and approached them was wearing clothing that looked thirty years out of date. He was wearing a bowler hat and everything.
“I’m sorry,” the man said. “I couldn’t help but overhear.”
“I was already thinking about that,” Joe said. He tapped the comic book on the counter. “Detective Dan, Secret Agent number 48…we need to write a hero like that.”
“He looks like a strong jawed, heroic type,” the older man said, looking down at the crudely drawn picture of the detective holding a gun on a villain while another crept up behind him.”
Ignoring the stranger, Jerry said, “Everybody is doing private detective stories. We need to do something that stands out.”
“I’m tapped out of ideas,” Joe admitted.
Noting that the man was still standing behind them, Jerry said, “Look mister…”
“Call me Herbert,” the strange little man said. “I read your story ‘The Reign of the Super-man’ and thought it was inspired.”
“You’re a fan?!?” Jerry said, his face widening into a grin. “Why didn’t you say so?”
He jumped off his stool and moved over one. “Take a seat!”
The small man sat and called to the man behind the counter. “I’ll have an ice cream, and two more for my friends here.”
Both boys perked up involuntarily. Free ice cream was almost as good as finding a fan.
“So you were saying you needed to write about a hero, but you wanted him to be something special…something more than a man.”
“No…but that isn’t a bad idea,” Joe said. “Somebody who can fight crime, but isn’t a detective.”
“A reporter maybe,” Jerry said, suddenly excited.
“A reporter isn’t exciting,” Joe said. “He’s just a guy.”
“Maybe he hides how special he really is,” the stranger said. “Wears a disguise when he needs to do something special.”
“Like a secret identity?” Joe asked. “I guess it would be easier to fight crime if people didn’t know where you lived.”
“He’d have to be strong,” the stranger said.
“The strongest man ever…like Samson or Hercules,” Joe said. His mind was already racing. He watched as Jerry grabbed a napkin and pulled the pen out of his pocket.
“He’d have to be fast.” The little man’s voice was almost hypnotic.
Jerry’s sketch showed the outline of a man holding a car over his head. Joe felt a shiver down his spine as the idea began to spring to life.
“Faster than a speeding bullet,” Joe said. He glanced at the outline Jerry was drawing and said, “Put him in a circus outfit, like a strong man. He needs something distinctive and colorful.”
Staring at the sketch, he said, “Add a little Flash Gordon.”
Jerry sketched the trunks on the outside, like any self respecting strongman, but it still wasn’t right.
“Perhaps a cape?” the stranger said.
Jerry drew a small opera cape, and the stranger shook his head. “Perhaps something larger."
Joe stared intently at the figure on the napkin. The cape was now flowing majestically out behind the figure, floating in the wind. There was something exciting and dynamic about it, even despite the fact that he was holding a car in the air.
“We need a name,” Joe said. “Maybe I’ll call him Gable Taylor.”
The small man blinked. “Gable Taylor?”
“Well, this guy is going to be a little like Clark Gable and a little like Kent Taylor…strong jaw, good looks…”
“Perhaps turn it around,” the other man said weakly.
“Taylor Gable? That’s a little obvious.” At the man’s look he said, “Clark Kent? Hey, that’s not bad.”
Jerry said, “He could fight crime…the mobsters and gangsters and bad element. Do all the things the rest of us wish we could do.”
The two boys looked at each other. In the world they lived in, gangsters were a very real threat, something that people tolerated because they had to. With half the police force on the take…
“Better set it in another city…” Jerry said. “But I don’t know any other cities…”
Finding pictures of New York or somewhere else was going to be expensive, and there were enough people who’d been there that if Jerry drew it wrong, people would notice.
“Why don’t you create a city?” the stranger asked mildly, passing over the fifteen cents for their three ice creams.
“What, like Fritz Lang did with that movie Metropolis?” Jerry asked.
“Metropolis…”Joe said, his mind racing. “Clark Kent…a mild mannered reporter in the great city of Metropolis. Secretly he fights for truth and justice…”
“And the American way,” Jerry said.
“He needs a dame though,” Joe said. “A guy always needs a dame. Maybe a reporter just like him…sort of like Torchy Blaine, that reporter in the movies.”
“She’s played by the actress Lola Lane, isn’t she?” the stranger asked.
“Can’t use Lola….Lois though, that has some potential.” Jerry said.
“So Clark Kent works with Lois Lane, the dame he can’t ever have…because she’s in love with his secret identity…whatever you call it…”
“I think you already have a name,” the stranger said. He pulled a copy of their story ‘Rise of the Super-man’ from inside his jacket.
“Superman…faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than…a locomotive. Secretly working as a reporter named Clark Kent, he stands for truth, justice and the American way.” Joe felt excited about this idea in a way he hadn’t in a long time. This was an idea that had legs.
“So he’s strong and fast,” Jerry said, “But sometimes that’s not enough.”
“He’ll be bulletproof too,” Joe said, his expression darkening. After the death of his father, gunned down in a robbery, bulletproof was something a hero almost certainly needed to be.
His father had been a hero…an immigrant.
“He’ll be an immigrant…the ultimate immigrant. The last survivor of his whole world…” The ideas were flowing faster and faster now.
“Perhaps he could fly, faster than any plane,” the stranger said. Pulling the antique pocket watch from the pocket of his waistcoat, he said “I have places to be, my boys. I wish you luck with your story.”
A moment later he had stepped out of the ice cream shop, and all they could hear was the sound of his whistling as it faded away.
“Fly?” Jerry said.
Joe smirked. There were limits to what people would believe. The guy had given them some good suggestions, but he obviously wasn’t a writer. Flying was simply too much for people to accept.
“Maybe we’d better stick to ‘able to leap small buildings in a single bound,” Joe said.
The little man smiled. All was right in the world.